The Profound Effects of Childhood Poverty and Stress on Adult Brain Function

Wonder why some find it so difficult to escape the multi-generational cycle of poverty? Some experts attribute this phenomenon to a child’s financial situation when growing up. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America shows that childhood poverty and stress has profound impact on adult brain function and productivity later on in life, thereby causing occupational and social impairment.


The longitudinal 15-year study, which is a collaboration of eight scholars from well-respected universities in the United States, featured 49 Caucasian participants who lived in urban districts.

The researchers obtained information pertinent to the study from the participants, which were then aged 9. Included in the data collection are vital factors such as family income, parent-child interactions, exposure to stressors, physiological stress responses and socio-emotional development. After the interview of the participants, about half of the partakers were categorized as children who grew up in poverty.

The researchers conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging to evaluate the brains of the participants 15 years after, when they were at age 24. They were given emotional-regulations tasks while undergoing visualization. During the process, the researchers asked the participants to suppress negative emotions and employ cognitive coping strategies while browsing through a set of images.


According to the results, it has been established that childhood poverty has effects on the individual’s physical and psychological well-being, with much of the consequences manifesting during adulthood. Such outcomes are blamed on the emotional stressors they have experienced when they were young, such as crowding, family separation, clan turmoil, noise and substandard housing, to name a few.

Exposure to chronic stressors, as it has been established in earlier studies, is known to have profound effects on the brain, resulting to neurobiological changes that can dictate health problems in adulthood. The parts of the brain that are severely affected by chronic stressor exposure are the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, the regions that are responsible for emotional regulation.

According to the imaging results, those who grew up in low-income families demonstrated diminished dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activity. They also had a hard time suppressing the activity of the amygdala when they were asked to regulate the negative emotions that they were feeling at that time of the survey.

The ability to control negative emotions is an important coping mechanism for any person, since this enables the individual to get past the problems and stresses encountered.

Despite the variances in adult income – some became financially stable while others remained in poverty – individuals who grew up in a poor childhood environment were the ones who fared worse with regards to suppressing negative emotions and overall emotional regulation. Because of such results, it has been concluded that childhood poverty is an accurate predictor of possible mental problems, regardless of financial status as an adult.

The study also suggests that poverty and stress are ‘embedded’ into the individual, which sends individual to a path that leads to various problems in regards to brain function as an adult.

The Effects of Brain Dysregulation

At age 9, the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex are still in the early developmental stages. Unfortunately, exposure to childhood poverty and stress takes a toll on the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, leading to a variety of health problems that can manifest later on in life.

The amygdala is the part of the brain that is responsible for detecting threats in the environment. It is in charge of triggering the physiological stress responses of the body.

The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is responsible for regulating the amygdala. Its regions, namely the dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, play a role in cognitive control, executive functioning and goal attainment.

Increased activity in the said regions of the prefrontal cortex diminishes the amygdala’s reactivity to negative stimuli. The dysregulation of both regions then contribute to a neurobiological change that is similar to those found in people suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, depression, substance abuse and impulsive aggression.

Effects on the Adult Brain

Because of the effects of childhood stress and poverty on the brain, a child who grew up in an impoverished environment has a higher risk of suffering from a variety of physical and psychological illnesses. In fact, surveys show that 1 out of 6 children raise in poverty develop mental health disorders; a far cry from the ratio of 1:20 for children not raised in poverty.

One disorder that affects these individuals is anxiety, a serious mental disorder wherein an individual experiences constant and overwhelming fear. Types of anxiety disorders that poor kids develop as adults include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder – unrealistic and excessive worry that stems without provocation or cause.
  • Panic disorder – terror that strikes immediately, repeatedly, and without warning.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive disorder – a condition wherein an individual has to perform certain routines or procedures in order to eradicate the thoughts and fears inside the head.
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder – anxiety develops after a devastating event such as physical assault.

Another mental problem that often occurs in adults who grew up in immense poverty and stress is depression, a feeling of intense sadness, consequently stopping the individual from functioning normally in the society.

Another thing about these mental disorders that result from childhood poverty and stress is that they can thrust the individual back to poverty. After all, such problems can affect the person’s intellect, the chances of getting a job, and function effectively in a social and occupational environment.


Because of the striking findings of the research, the researchers are lobbying for early interventions, especially in homes burdened with poverty and stress, in order to avoid the physical and psychological problems that might arise when the child reaches adulthood. After all, childhood problems that burden the developing prefrontal cortex can significantly reduce a child’s ability to retain lessons, focus, and concentrate in school.

Fortunately, prefrontal cortex problems in children can be reversed easily as long as it is detected right away. Upon the recognition of such dysfunction, intensive interventions such as focused games and lessons should be recommended, so that children can learn how to use their executive functions and think out loud.

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