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Poor Children's Brain Activity Resembles That Of Stroke Victims, EEG Shows

Susan Notes:

Rather than pay middle class
people to train kids to behave differently to
train them to recite nonsense syllables, I say
provide their families with a living

University of California, Berkeley,
researchers have shown for the first time that
the brains of low-income children function
differently from the brains of high-income

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.
Brain function was measured by means of an
electroencephalograph (EEG) ΓΆ€" basically, a cap
fitted with electrodes to measure electrical
activity in the brain ΓΆ€" like that used to
assess epilepsy, sleep disorders and brain

"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 ΓΆ€" Wellness in
Kids ΓΆ€" 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

"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

The researchers were interested in the brain's
very early response ΓΆ€" within as little as 200
milliseconds, or a fifth of a second ΓΆ€" after a
novel picture was flashed on the screen, such
as a photo of a puppy or of Mickey and Minnie

"An EEG allows us to measure very fast brain
responses with millisecond accuracy," Kishiyama

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 ΓΆ€" 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 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?'"

This research is supported by grants from the
National Institute of Mental Health and the
National Institute of Neurological Disorders
and Stroke of the National Institutes of

Adapted from materials provided by University
of California - Berkeley.

— staff
Science Daily


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