10/24/2013 02:13 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2013

Growing Up In Poverty Could Affect Brain Functioning In Adulthood


Stress and poverty experienced during childhood could have a negative impact on the ability to regulate emotions in adulthood, according to a small new study.

The research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that children who grew up poor were more likely to experience emotional regulation problems later on in adulthood, and also had differences in activity in certain brain regions.

"Our findings suggest that the stress-burden of growing up poor may be an underlying mechanism that accounts for the relationship between poverty as a child and how well your brain works as an adult," study researcher Dr. K. Luan Phan, a professor of psychiatry at University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, said in a statement. Phan worked with colleagues at Cornell University, the University of Michigan and the University of Denver on the study.

Forty-nine people were included in the study, about half of whom came from low-income families. They were followed from age 9 -- the age at which researchers took note of their poverty status -- until age 24. Researchers also noted the participants' parent-child interactions, stress responses, and exposures to stressors.

At age 24, they had the participants undergo brain imaging while completing a task where they had to try to stop themselves from having a negative emotion in reaction to seeing a picture.

Researchers found an association between lower family income during childhood and higher amygdala activity (which is involved in fear and negative emotions) and lower prefrontal cortex activity (which is involved in negative emotion regulation).

Plus, the more stress the participants experienced while growing up -- measured at ages 9, 13 and 17 -- the stronger the relationship was between the brain activity and childhood poverty status.

The findings are especially important, given one in five children lived below the poverty level in 2011, according to a report released last year, as reported by Reuters.

In 2008, a study showed that 9- and 10-year-olds from low-income families had worse prefrontal cortex brain functioning than wealthier kids.

"It is a similar pattern to what's seen in patients with strokes that have led to lesions in their prefrontal cortex," the researcher of that study, Mark Kishiyama, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California-Berkeley, told USA Today. "It suggests that in these kids, prefrontal function is reduced or disrupted in some way."