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Posted November 29, 2012

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Brain Development

Carleton Researcher finds that Family’s Economic Situation Influences Brain Function in Children

Mobile neuroscience lab looks at differences in brain activity across social spectrum

Ottawa - Carleton’s Amedeo D'Angiulli, director of Child Studies with the Department of Neuroscience, has published a study showing that children of low socio-economic status work harder to filter out irrelevant environmental information than those from a high-income background because of learned differences in what draws their attention. This new research has been published in the open access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Numerous studies in the past few years have begun to reveal how poverty affects brain development and function. In 2008, D’Angiulli and his colleagues used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the brain wave patterns associated with an auditory selective attention task in children of high and low socio-economic status (SES).

They found that the two groups of children exhibited differences in theta brain waves in the frontal lobe, which play an important role in attention. This suggested that each group of children recruited different neural mechanisms for this particular type of task, and that the lower SES children allocated additional resources to attending to irrelevant informa­tion.

“Socio-economic environment shapes the way our neurocognitive functions develop in childhood and influence the way we learn to process information when we are adults so that we can be well-adapted in a certain specific type of social environment,” says D’Angiulli.

For their latest study, D’Angiulli and his colleagues recruited 28 children aged 12 to 14 from two schools in neighbour­hoods of disparate socio-economic status. One of them was attended predominantly by children from a high-income background, and the other largely by children from a low-income background.

The researchers performed the study at the schools during an ordinary school day. Working in a mobile lab, they took saliva samples from the participants throughout the day to measure changes in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and asked them to complete three questionnaires about their emotional and motivational state at different times.

In the afternoon, the participants’ brain waves were recorded while they performed a task in which they heard different sounds being played simultaneously in both ears, and were required to press a button as fast as possible when they heard one particular sound.

There were no significant differences between the two groups in the accuracy or reaction time during the task. The researchers did, however, observe differences in brain wave patterns between the two groups. Higher SES children exhibited far larger theta waves in response to sounds they attended to than those they should have ignored. In the lower SES children, however, this pattern was reversed – the theta waves evoked by the unattended sounds were much larger than those for the attended sounds.


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