According to a University of Michigan study published in October, socioeconomic resources may be linked to changes in children’s brain connectivity, the pattern of anatomical links between different neural systems in the brain. The study was conducted as part of the larger Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, for which the University is one of 21 sites ABCD is working with, and used data from 5,821 children between the ages of nine and 10.
U-M alum Katherine Thorne, a research assistant in the study, said being part of such a large study made it easier to ensure they had a representative sample that encompasses the whole nation, rather than just a specific location.
“The study is really large, the sample is huge, but it was also designed in a way to best reflect the demographic makeup of kids of this age group in the United States,” Thorne said.
Dr. Sekhar Chandra Sripada, principal investigator on the study and a professor of psychiatry, said decades of social science research have shown that the socioeconomic resources of a household — such as the household income, parental education level and quality of the neighborhood — can influence a child’s behavior, mental health and educational outcomes. Psychologists, neuroscientists and psychiatrists were interested in finding a clearer picture of the underlying mechanisms for these changes, and Sripada said this study was designed to help do that.
“Somehow the environment presumably is influencing the brain,” Sripada said. “It’s creating changes in the outcomes for these children, and that’s what we’re trying to characterize: the influence of the environment on the brain.”
The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to analyze resting-state functional connectivity of the brain. While subjects remained still, different parts of the brain were imaged to track the underlying cognitive mechanisms.
“The brain is a network, and we can map that network using imaging,” Sripada said. “Socioeconomic resources are associated with a lot of changes in these networks.”
According to Dr. Katherine McCurry, co-author of the study and a postdoctoral student, the results suggest that one of the major variables associated with changes in brain connectivity is parental education.
“We found that (socioeconomic resources) had broad, widespread effects on the resting state functional connectivity of the brain,” McCurry said. “We looked at the household income compared to the needs, the parental education and neighborhood disadvantage, and we found that this widespread pattern in the brain that was related to socioeconomic resources was largely accounted for by parental education.”
While parental education and household income compared to cost of living both had a statistically significant association with changes in brain connectivity, parental education was found to have a stronger association. Neighborhood disadvantage was not found to have a statistically significant relationship with connectivity differences. The study then examined different reasons why a parent’s education level might impact the brain connections in a child.
“We were able to find that some things like the enrichment activities that a parent does with the child, like reading with a child, (or) talking with a child about ideas … accounted for some of this, as well as the child’s cognitive abilities and their grades in school,” McCurry said. “Those three things accounted for some of this pattern, but certainly not all of it.”
Sripada said that when considering these findings, it’s important to acknowledge that there is still not a detailed understanding of the meaning of these changes in brain connectivity.
“The brain is a massively plastic entity,” Sekhar said. “Changes in the brain are not etched in stone by any means whatsoever.”
LSA student Jill Charbonneau, who is president of the Cognitive Science Community and a double-major in Cognitive Science and Sociology, said it’s crucial to understand that the brain is a constantly changing organ when conducting cognitive science research.
“So there are different connections, which (the study) found to be correlated with different criteria, so to speak,” Charbonneau said. “But that doesn’t mean that they’re stagnant, and that they’re stuck … The brain has magnificent capabilities in development and growth.”
Charbonneau said the study’s purpose of examining the impact of socioeconomic factors on the physical functioning of the brain is an emerging topic in cognitive science and sociology research.
“This isn’t something that has been researched a lot, it’s something that’s definitely growing,” Charbonneau said. “It’s exciting to see what they find … and then we can (consider) how we address (socioeconomic inequalities).”
Sripada said this study provides another opportunity to acknowledge the impact of inequality in the United States.
“I’m a scientist, but I am also an individual with pretty deep-seated and clear set views about society and moral issues independently of my science,” Sripada said. “I have had long-standing views that the level of inequality seen in the United States is excessive and needs to be addressed. And it does have negative consequences, especially on youth in terms of their mental health, physical health, academic outcomes, social outcomes and so forth … I think (this study) is just one small piece that (demonstrates) … inequality is a problem.”
Daily Staff Reporter Nadia Taeckens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.