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Poverty reduction alters infant brain activity - NIH Research Matters

15 Feb 2022 8:50 AM | Deborah Hodges (Administrator)

Poverty in early childhood correlates with lower school achievement and reduced earnings as an adult. It is also associated with differences in brain structure and electrical brain activity. Brain activity exhibits repetitive patterns at various frequencies. More low-frequency activity has been associated with behavioral, attention, and learning problems. Higher-frequency activity has been associated with better language, cognitive, and social-emotional scores. [NIH Research Matters 2.15.2022]

Some evidence suggests that children from lower-income families tend to have more low-frequency activity and less high-frequency activity than those from higher-income families. But it’s not clear whether poverty causes these changes in brain activity or is merely associated with other factors that cause them.

To find out, researchers created the Baby’s First Years study, a randomized controlled trial of poverty reduction in early childhood. In this study, 1,000 low-income mothers of newborns received a cash gift for the first several years of their children’s lives. The size of the gift was randomly chosen to be either $333 or $20 per month. The mothers could spend the money in ways that made the most sense to them, with no strings attached. 

The ongoing trial is led by Drs. Kimberly Noble of Teachers College, Columbia University, Katherine Magnuson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Greg Duncan of the University of California, Irvine. It is supported in part by NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). The first results from the trial appeared in the February 1, 2022, issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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