Poverty is bad for your brain.
That’s the basic takeaway from an emerging body of research suggesting that the distress associated with growing up poor can negatively influence brain development in many ways, and in certain cases might also lead to emotional and mental health problems, like depression.
The latest study, led by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, found that poverty in early childhood may influence the development of important connections between parts of the brain that are critical for effective regulation of emotions.
The study, published in the Journal of American Psychiatry, adds “to the growing awareness of the immense public health crisis represented by the huge number of children growing up in poverty and the likely long-lasting impact this experience has on brain development and on negative mood and depression,” researchers report.
In a small but provocative study, researchers found suggestions of abnormal brain development in the fetuses of obese women.
Specifically, researchers from the Mother-Infant Research Institute at Tufts Medical Center examined gene fragments (which can provide insight into fetal organ development, including the brain) in the amniotic fluid of both lean and obese women. As early as the second trimester, they detected differences in the gene expression in the fetuses of obese mothers compared to fetuses of women who were a healthy weight, they report.
The study only involved a total of 16 pregnant women, eight lean and eight obese.
Still, maternal obesity is a growing public health problem with 1 in 5 pregnant women in the U.S now obese. A whole host of health problems and complications have been linked to maternal obesity, including “higher rates of cesarean section, higher rates of infant birth defects and a three-fold higher incidence of neonatal death. Babies born to obese mothers, even if born at a normal weight, have been shown to have multiple metabolic problems with lifelong consequences,” according to the Mother-Infant Research Institute.
In this study, presented at the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine’s annual meeting in San Francisco last week, researchers reported that the fetuses of obese women had decreased apoptosis, a developmental process of programmed cell death. Andrea Goldberg Edlow, the study’s lead researcher and a fellow in Maternal-Fetal Medicine at Tufts Medical Center explained it this way: “One could think of apoptosis as being similar to necessary “pruning” or trimming away of excess material in the developing fetal brain. It is well-documented in animal models that apoptosis plays a critical role in brain development in utero.”
I asked Dr. Edlow a bit more about the research. Continue reading