A recent study presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscientists found a correlation between a parent’s income and education level and the development of certain areas of their child’s brain that relate to learning, memory and stress processing.
The study analyzed the brain images of subjects whose parents had between eight and 21 years of education and incomes that ranged from below poverty level to over $140,000 for a family of four. The study was led by Kimberly Noble, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia, in conjunction with Elizabeth Sowell, a professor of pediatrics at USC.
Noble found that the hippocampal region of the brain, which is essential in learning and memory function, had a larger volume for subjects who were raised by parents with higher incomes.
When it came to education level, subjects whose parents were better educated had a smaller amygdala volume. The amygdala is involved in stress processing; in an interview with The Washington Post's Janice D’Arcy, Noble referenced a study that found children who had spent more time in an orphanage abroad had a larger amygdala than those who were there for a shorter period of time.
The researcher downplayed the suggestion that a disadvantaged upbringing could contribute to brain deficiencies, noting that the elements associated with income and education are more likely responsible for the differences.
“We know that providing children with cognitive stimulation and emotional warmth are important: talking to children, bringing them to the library, being warm and nurturing,” Noble told D’Arcy. “You can provide cognitive stimulation in the absence of high income.”
Speaking to what this could mean for public policy, Noble said we should encourage policies that would “promote healthy child development by optimizing exposure to cognitive stimulation and emotional warmth.
A report released in summer 2011 found that parental income is strongly linked to academic performance, even when accounting for other background factors, such as gender and race. The paper found each additional $10,000 in annual parental income throughout early childhood gave kids the equivalent of slightly more than one extra month of learning. The paper also found ties between maternal learning and student achievement: an additional year of a mother's schooling was equivalent to about half month of additional learning, as gauged by test scores.