Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Brains of low-income children function differently from brains of high-income kids

It has been known for decades that poor people tend to have lower IQs. The research below simply confirms that fact very directly by looking at the actual brain responses of poor kids instead of looking at their test results.

The results below cannot of course settle whether the differences observed are inborn or not. So far, only twin studies have been able to do that. But research similar to that below with very young children might also be persuasive. The authors below of course plump for environmental influences but not very convincingly. They say that the brains of very poor kids react just like the brains of people who have permanent brain damage. Yet they assert -- with no evidence -- that the defect is NOT permanent. They think that kids can be trained out of it! They have to end up admitting in the last paragraph however that such training generally does not work! Even where it does appear to have had some effect -- as in some of the Head Start projects -- the effect wears off after a couple of years.

The journal abstract below is followed by the university press release

Socioeconomic Disparities Affect Prefrontal Function in Children

By Kishiyama MM, Boyce WT, Jimenez AM, Perry LM, Knight RT.

Social inequalities have profound effects on the physical and mental health of children. Children from low socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds perform below children from higher SES backgrounds on tests of intelligence and academic achievement, and recent findings indicate that low SES (LSES) children are impaired on behavioral measures of prefrontal function. However, the influence of socioeconomic disparity on direct measures of neural activity is unknown. Here, we provide electrophysiological evidence indicating that prefrontal function is altered in LSES children. We found that prefrontal-dependent electrophysiological measures of attention were reduced in LSES compared to high SES (HSES) children in a pattern similar to that observed in patients with lateral prefrontal cortex (PFC) damage. These findings provide neurophysiological evidence that social inequalities are associated with alterations in PFC function in LSES children. There are a number of factors associated with LSES rearing conditions that may have contributed to these results such as greater levels of stress and lack of access to cognitively stimulating materials and experiences. Targeting specific prefrontal processes affected by socioeconomic disparity could be helpful in developing intervention programs for LSES children.

In a study recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience , scientists at UC Berkeley's Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and the School of Public Health report that normal 9- and 10-year-olds differing only in socioeconomic status have detectable differences in the response of their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is critical for problem solving and creativity. [IQ is a measure of general problem-solving ability]

Brain function was measured by means of an electroencephalograph (EEG) - basically, a cap fitted with electrodes to measure electrical activity in the brain - like that used to assess epilepsy, sleep disorders and brain tumors. "Kids from lower socioeconomic levels show brain physiology patterns similar to someone who actually had damage in the frontal lobe as an adult," said Robert Knight, director of the institute and a UC Berkeley professor of psychology. "We found that kids are more likely to have a low response if they have low socioeconomic status, though not everyone who is poor has low frontal lobe response."

Previous studies have shown a possible link between frontal lobe function and behavioral differences in children from low and high socioeconomic levels, but according to cognitive psychologist Mark Kishiyama, first author of the new paper, "those studies were only indirect measures of brain function and could not disentangle the effects of intelligence, language proficiency and other factors that tend to be associated with low socioeconomic status. Our study is the first with direct measure of brain activity where there is no issue of task complexity."

Co-author W. Thomas Boyce, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of public health who currently is the British Columbia Leadership Chair of Child Development at the University of British Columbia (UBC), is not surprised by the results. "We know kids growing up in resource-poor environments have more trouble with the kinds of behavioral control that the prefrontal cortex is involved in regulating. But the fact that we see functional differences in prefrontal cortex response in lower socioeconomic status kids is definitive."

Boyce, a pediatrician and developmental psychobiologist, heads a joint UC Berkeley/UBC research program called WINKS - Wellness in Kids - that looks at how the disadvantages of growing up in low socioeconomic circumstances change children's basic neural development over the first several years of life. "This is a wake-up call," Knight said. "It's not just that these kids are poor and more likely to have health problems, but they might actually not be getting full brain development from the stressful and relatively impoverished environment associated with low socioeconomic status: fewer books, less reading, fewer games, fewer visits to museums."

Kishiyama, Knight and Boyce suspect that the brain differences can be eliminated by proper training. They are collaborating with UC Berkeley neuroscientists who use games to improve the prefrontal cortex function, and thus the reasoning ability, of school-age children. "It's not a life sentence," Knight emphasized. "We think that with proper intervention and training, you could get improvement in both behavioral and physiological indices."

Kishiyama, Knight, Boyce and their colleagues selected 26 children ages 9 and 10 from a group of children in the WINKS study. Half were from families with low incomes and half from families with high incomes. For each child, the researchers measured brain activity while he or she was engaged in a simple task: watching a sequence of triangles projected on a screen. The subjects were instructed to click a button when a slightly skewed triangle flashed on the screen.

The researchers were interested in the brain's very early response - within as little as 200 milliseconds, or a fifth of a second - after a novel picture was flashed on the screen, such as a photo of a puppy or of Mickey and Minnie Mouse. "An EEG allows us to measure very fast brain responses with millisecond accuracy," Kishiyama said.

The researchers discovered a dramatic difference in the response of the prefrontal cortex not only when an unexpected image flashed on the screen, but also when children were merely watching the upright triangles waiting for a skewed triangle to appear. Those from low socioeconomic environments showed a lower response to the unexpected novel stimuli in the prefrontal cortex that was similar, Kishiyama said, to the response of people who have had a portion of their frontal lobe destroyed by a stroke.

"When paying attention to the triangles, the prefrontal cortex helps you process the visual stimuli better. And the prefrontal cortex is even more involved in detecting novelty, like the unexpected photographs," he said. But in both cases, "the low socioeconomic kids were not detecting or processing the visual stimuli as well. They were not getting that extra boost from the prefrontal cortex."

"These kids have no neural damage, no prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol, no neurological damage," Kishiyama said. "Yet, the prefrontal cortex is not functioning as efficiently as it should be. This difference may manifest itself in problem solving and school performance."

The researchers suspect that stressful environments and cognitive impoverishment are to blame, since in animals, stress and environmental deprivation have been shown to affect the prefrontal cortex. UC Berkeley's Marian Diamond, professor emeritus of integrative biology, showed nearly 20 years ago in rats that enrichment thickens the cerebral cortex as it improves test performance. And as Boyce noted, previous studies have shown that children from poor families hear 30 million fewer words by the time they are four than do kids from middle-class families.

"In work that we and others have done, it really looks like something as simple and easily done as talking to your kids" can boost prefrontal cortex performance, Boyce said. "We are certainly not blaming lower socioeconomic families for not talking to their kids - there are probably a zillion reasons why that happens," he said. "But changing developmental outcomes might involve something as accessible as helping parents to understand that it is important that kids sit down to dinner with their parents, and that over the course of that dinner it would be good for there to be a conversation and people saying things to each other."

"The study is suggestive and a little bit frightening that [presumed] environmental conditions have such a strong impact on brain development," said Silvia Bunge, UC Berkeley assistant professor of psychology who is leading the intervention studies on prefrontal cortex development in teenagers by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Boyce's UBC colleague, Adele Diamond, showed last year that 5- and 6-year-olds with impaired executive functioning, that is, poor problem solving and reasoning abilities, can improve their academic performance with the help of special activities, including dramatic play.

Bunge hopes that, with fMRI, she can show improvements in academic performance as a result of these games, actually boosting the activity of the prefrontal cortex. "People have tried for a long time to train reasoning, largely unsuccessfully," Bunge said. "Our question is, 'Can we replicate these initial findings and at the same time give kids the tools to succeed?'"


The Sweet Sound Of Being Right About Soda Bans

Here's some breaking news: High-school students like drinking soda. Normally this would sound the "duh" alarm, but schools in Maine elected in 2005 to abolish the fizzy drinks in a misguided effort to slim down overweight kids. But lawmakers didn't base their ban on scientific evidence, and it turns out the theory that soda bans reduce obesity is groundless.

The University of Southern Maine just released a study tested how well those Maine soda bans actually worked to cut down on students' soda intake. Researchers looked at four schools that eliminated all beverages with sugar (including sodas, juice, and sports drinks) as well as diet sodas. They also examined three schools where vending machines were left alone. The results?
The study found boys decreased sugary drink consumption by 15 percent, girls by 18 percent, and this decrease was similar across both groups. The question of the day. Why did rates go down in the control group, too? Blum says it may have to do with the fact that at the time of the study state officials and lawmakers were heavily promoting messages aimed at reducing obesity. "And there was a slight reduction in the amount of sugar-sweetened beverages available in those controlled schools as well. They weren't supposed to change but sometimes a vendor would come in and fill up the machines without really doing an inventory."

Bottom line: Soda bans have no impact on what kids choose to drink. The only thing that appears to have made a difference is a campaign encouraging -- you guessed it -- moderation. And perhaps Maine schools would have seen a real reduction in student obesity if they made sure phys ed was a part of the school day. Getting kids involved in sports and other forms of exercise fosters healthy habits that will serve them well throughout the rest of their lives, unlike soda bans which simply regulate their drink choices for a few hours a day. Maine Public Radio asked us for our take on the study:
"[It] shows that despite all of the activist groups that have been demonizing soda, and finally having the soda companies in some way or another responding to those groups, that the actual changes they were calling for have had no impact . If you give kids the tools they can use to get active, if you teach them sports, it's something that they're going to do directed on their own. There's no finger-waving involved there. But when you take something away, it's a finger wave, it's a slap on the wrist and it eliminates the personal responsibility."

We always knew that one-off food and drink bans were shortsighted, and the scientific community backs us up. But the question remains: Will Maine schools reverse this silly ban now that it's been exposed as a wrong-headed exercise?


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