Socioeconomic Inequalities and Children’s Brain Development

Awarded Scholars:
Kimberly Noble, Columbia University
Project Date:
Jul 2017
Award Amount:

Co-funded with the Ford Foundation

In 2014, 44 percent of children in the U.S. lived in low-income households with 15.4 million living below the official poverty level. Research shows that early socioeconomic (SES) disadvantage is negatively associated with children’s cognitive development and academic achievement. By the time children reach kindergarten, there are significant SES gaps in their achievement and academic outcomes. These gaps do not diminish as children progress through school, with some evidence suggesting that the gaps widen later in childhood. Brain development and plasticity are heavily influenced by dynamic features of the environment. Recent work by neuroscientists has shown that SES disadvantage is associated with the structure and function of critical areas of children’s brains, often tied to regions associated with language, memory and self-regulation.  

Kimberly Noble argues that although SES disparities are associated with differences in child experience, it is unclear which aspects of the environment link SES inequalities with differences in children’s brain development. Two aspects of parenting and family life are theoretically and empirically salient in transmitting SES disparities to the next generation—the home language environment and family stress in the home. Noble will carry out a project to explore these factors with two aims: First, she will examine the associations between SES, the home language environment, brain development and language development, hypothesizing that differences in the home language environment will partially account for SES disparities in language development and language-related brain structure and function. Second, she will examine the associations between SES, family stress, brain development and cognitive development, hypothesizing that differences in perceived and physiologic stress will partially account for SES disparities in infant memory and memory-related brain function. 


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