Family Income Affects Children’s Brain Size, Research Shows

June 25, 2015 | Education
A recent study found that the brain surface area linked to intelligence is correlated with family income.

By Erin Delmore

Money can buy a bigger house, a better school and the best summer camps, but can it also buy a bigger brain?

The relationship between socioeconomic status and IQ is well documented. The “income achievement gap” shows elevated test scores and high school graduation rates among children from high-income families, compared with their lower-income peers.

Professors at Columbia University and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles studied more than 1,000 kids between the ages of 3 and 20 through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), cognitive computerized tests and DNA samples. The found that brain surface area, a factor linked to intelligence, is correlated with family income.

Karin Figueras is the center director for the Head Start program operated by Acelero Learning in Freehold. She says her program aims to level the playing field for kids and their parents.

“I think what [parents] feel is, what could I have done differently for my child? Is it just because of my income? I love my child just as much as maybe this parent loves their child, but unfortunately I’m not able to give them those extra helps and programs that cost money, that a lot of these other families can,” Figueras said.

The center operates like a pre-school and targets some of the activities and experiences that kids in more well-off families have access to, including nutritious family-style meals, access to quality health care and classrooms chock-full of books and toys.

“It is our goal to get them where they need to be before they go to kindergarten because the research also shows that at that age, their brains have lots of room to grow, and the more we do with them, the more likely they are to get to that same place as their middle-income peers,” Amanda Colon, director of education, disabilities and mental health for Acelero Learning in Freehold, said. “The achievement gap overall is generally thought to be about a 15 point difference between middle-income and low-income children. In Monmouth County, it’s actually closer to 25 points, which is a really significant difference.”

The study found that a child from a family earning less than $25,000 a year has an average of 6 percent less brain surface area than a child whose family earns $150,000 a year or more.

“It suggests that even, just a 6 percent smaller difference is related to the way these kids are performing in their environments,” said Elizabeth Sowell, a co-author of the study and professor of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

The good news is, there’s no fixed trajectory. But while the brain continues to grow and develop throughout adulthood, researchers still say that childhood is the best opportunity to teach and learn.

Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.