Psychologists have known for a long time that children from poor families often have more difficulty with the types of behaviors managed by the prefrontal cortex, including attention, decision-making, and problem-solving. A new study indicates that even in children with no neural damage, and no prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol, simply growing up poor is associated with prefrontal activity that is similar to people who have experienced stroke damage to their frontal lobes.

Prefrontal Activity In Response to a Surprising Stimulus Varies According to Socioeconomic Status.  The dark green areas indicate higher levels of activity. Image is from Mark Kishiyama of UC Berkeley.

Prefrontal Activity In Response to a Surprising Stimulus Varies According to Socioeconomic Status. The dark green areas indicate higher levels of activity. Image is from Mark Kishiyama of UC Berkeley.

Nine and 10 year olds were studied using EEG while they watched triangles and novel images, such as a puppy or Mickey Mouse, flash on a screen. The kids from poor homes showed much less prefrontal response to both types of stimuli than the kids from wealthier homes.

There are countless variables associated with being poor, from medical care to diet to stimulation from parents. The researchers noted one such difference, the fact that children in middle-class homes hear 30 million more words spoken by the age of four years than children from poor homes. I hope that families that no longer think sitting down to dinner is important will rethink, along with parents who are so busy yakking on their cell phones that they forget to talk to their children.

The good news is that at least in children, activities like dramatic play can help reverse the effects of poverty on brain function, but time is of the essence.