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Poverty And The Brain

We’re all familiar with the delicate conditions that a foetus needs in utero. Back in the 1990s there was a panicked media storm about “crack babies’ whose mothers exposed their unborn child to cocaine. As with many stereotypes about young, black, women the dangers were greatly overstated.

One of the neuroscientists instrumental in countering these claims is Pat Levitt. Levitt holds the positions of Science Director at the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child and has found a more prevalent and troubling neurotoxin than crack cocaine- poverty.

The National Scientific Council report sought to define what conditions were the component parts of ‘poverty’. They surmised that things like poor housing quality could lead to overcrowding and noise. Child separation from parents and family turmoil. Poverty manifests as an extreme form of stress, and we all know how stress can affect us physically- headaches, stomach cramps, increased blood pressure.

To manage stress our bodies release cortisol, a hormone that is made in the adrenal cortex. Small amounts of cortisol can help us to handle difficult scenarios, but in the long term repeated exposed can be disastrous- especially for pregnant women. Cortisol can makes its way through the placenta and into the developing fetus, it can influence the brain in its formative time, as the child grow cortisol from their own body can continue to wreak havoc on the brain.

Studies have shown how different socioeconomic classes can affect brain development. A study published in Nature Neuroscience scanned the brain’s of over one thousand children using an MRI machine. DNA samples were collected along with historical data on the families’ income and education. Test to measure the children’s reading and memory aptitudes were conducted and the results indicated that for those earning the least, small incremental increases in income had greater effects on the brain. However as income levels increased the ‘money-brain’ curve flattened- meaning you cannot buy a brain but you can deprive one.

Scientific consensus is converging on the impact of poverty on our biology. Poverty begets poverty. It is something that can be handed down from generation to generation. In order to break this cycle the National Scientific Council and policymakers have been examine how to improve prenatal and paediatric care, provide easily accessible preschool education, and how to change laws surrounding drug use- what could be more stressful that being arrested whilst carrying a child?

Building a healthy brain requires a holistic approach; with changes to the criminal justice system just as important as changes to the welfare system and education system.

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