State of the art review: Poverty and the developing brain

Sara B. Johnson, Jenna L. Riis, Kimberly G. Noble

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In the United States, >40% of children are either poor or near-poor. As a group, children in poverty are more likely to experience worse health and more developmental delay, lower achievement, and more behavioral and emotional problems than their more advantaged peers; however, there is broad variability in outcomes among children exposed to similar conditions. Building on a robust literature from animal models showing that environmental deprivation or enrichment shapes the brain, there has been increasing interest in understanding how the experience of poverty may shape the brain in humans. In this review, we summarize research on the relationship between socioeconomic status and brain development, focusing on studies published in the last 5 years. Drawing on a conceptual framework informed by animal models, we highlight neural plasticity, epigenetics, material deprivation (eg, cognitive stimulation, nutrient deficiencies), stress (eg, negative parenting behaviors), and environmental toxins as factors that may shape the developing brain. We then summarize the existing evidence for the relationship between child poverty and brain structure and function, focusing on brain areas that support memory, emotion regulation, and higher-order cognitive functioning (ie, hippocampus, amygdala, prefrontal cortex) and regions that support language and literacy (ie, cortical areas of the left hemisphere). We then consider some limitations of the current literature and discuss the implications of neuroscience concepts and methods for interventions in the pediatric medical home.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2016
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health


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