News Release 

Childhood disadvantage affects brain connectivity

Positive home, school environment can mitigate risk

Elsevier

Research News

Philadelphia, May 18, 2021 - Many socioeconomically disadvantaged children face poor cognitive and mental health outcomes, and researchers are working to determine the specific factors that link childhood conditions to those poor outcomes, including how they might shape brain circuitry. In a new study, researchers have examined how "neighborhood disadvantage" can affect the developing brain, including the brain's connectivity between regions.

The study appears in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, published by Elsevier.

Sarah Whittle, PhD, and Divyangana Rakesh, lead authors of the study, studied existing brain scans from 7,618 children aged 9-10 collected as part of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study. Previous studies have identified differences in some brain regions in disadvantaged children, but the current study used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure functional connectivity, or how well different regions of the brain are connected with one another, at rest.

Rather than considering a single measure of status such as household income, the new study classified children according to neighborhood disadvantage, which encompasses multiple risk factors such as pollution, crime, and access to lower-quality education and healthcare.

Dr. Whittle said the purpose of the study was to "inform us of the mechanisms through which disadvantage impacts children's development and functioning." The team also wanted to investigate the role of factors such as positive home and school environments that may help reduce the harmful effects of disadvantage.

Analysis of the brain scans revealed that, in children with higher scores reflecting greater disadvantage, functional connectivity was reduced both between and within several brain networks.

"Our findings suggest that growing up in a disadvantaged neighborhood indeed impacts the brain. Importantly, however, findings suggest that providing children with better home and school environments where they feel supported, receive positive feedback, and have opportunities to engage in different activities, can offset some of the negative effects of neighborhood disadvantage on children's brain development," Ms. Rakesh said.

The findings have policy implications in the context of designing interventions and policies targeted at youth and families exposed to disadvantage; they suggest a need to shift attention from a sole focus on family-level factors to community-level research and policies.

Cameron Carter, MD, Editor of Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, said of the study, "These remarkable results show that improvements in the home and school environments can mitigate against the otherwise deleterious effects of growing up in a disadvantaged setting, providing a powerful message for the importance of public policies that provide more support at home and at school."

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Notes for editors

The article is "Associations between neighborhood disadvantage, resting-state functional connectivity, and behavior in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study: Moderating role of positive family and school environments," by Divyangana Rakesh, Caio Seguin, Andrew Zalensky, Vanessa Cropley, Sarah Whittle (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bpsc.2021.03.008). It appears as an Article in Press in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, published by Elsevier.

Copies of this paper are available to credentialed journalists upon request; please contact Rhiannon Bugno at BPCNNI@sobp.org or +1 254 522 9700. Journalists wishing to interview the authors may contact Divyangana Rakesh at rakeshd@student.unimelb.edu.au or +61 4 7878 2088, or Sarah Whittle at  +61 402 597 590 or swhittle@unimelb.edu.au.

The authors' affiliations and disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available in the article.

Cameron S. Carter, MD, is Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology and Director of the Center for Neuroscience at the University of California, Davis. His disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available here.

About Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging

Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging is an official journal of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, whose purpose is to promote excellence in scientific research and education in fields that investigate the nature, causes, mechanisms and treatments of disorders of thought, emotion, or behavior. In accord with this mission, this peer-reviewed, rapid-publication, international journal focuses on studies using the tools and constructs of cognitive neuroscience, including the full range of non-invasive neuroimaging and human extra- and intracranial physiological recording methodologies. It publishes both basic and clinical studies, including those that incorporate genetic data, pharmacological challenges, and computational modeling approaches. The 2019 Impact Factor score for Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging is 5.335. http://www.sobp.org/bpcnni

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Media contact

Rhiannon Bugno, Editorial Office
Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging
+1 254 522 9700
BPCNNI@sobp.org

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