Tom Boyce, who serves as the B.C. Leadership Chair of Child Development at the University of British Columbia, said the study found certain deficits in the functioning of the prefrontal cortex in kids from low-income environments.
The prefrontal cortex is the region of the brain that is critical for problem solving and creativity.
”The conclusion was that something about the early environments of children growing up in less well-off families fundamentally affects the growth and development of that region of the brain,” Dr. Boyce said.
”And that is concerning because we want all kids to have equal chances and it looks as though, because of this, that there may be some deficits in the development of the low-income kids.”
In the study, 26 children, ages nine and 10, were chosen. Half came from low-income environments while the other half consisted of children from high-income backgrounds.
Each child's brain activity was measured on an electroencephalograph (EEG) while he or she watched triangles projected on a screen.
Each child was told that when a slightly skewed triangle appeared, he or she was to click a button.
Researchers found that children from low socioeconomic environments demonstrated a slower response to the unexpected stimuli.
The study was conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, where, in addition to his UBC duties, Dr. Boyce serves as professor emeritus of public health.
Robert Knight, director of University of California at Berkeley's Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, and cognitive psychologist Mark Kishiyama also worked on the study, which was published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.
In a news release, Mr. Kishiyama described the response of low-income children in the study to the response of people who have had a portion of their frontal lobe destroyed by a stroke.
”These kids have no neural damage, no prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol, no neurological damage,” Mr. Kishiyama said. ”Yet the prefrontal cortex is not functioning as effectively as it should be.”
Dr. Knight suspects that with proper training, these brain differences can be eliminated.
”It's not a life sentence. We think that with proper intervention and training, you could get improvement in both behavioural and psychological indices,” he said in a news release.
Dr. Boyce, who recognizes that such findings can lead to calls of class warfare, said that's a charge researchers tried hard to avoid.
”We believe that these are differences in the early experiences of kids growing up in low socioeconomic status families. It's not the fault of anybody. We're looking for things that can be done to make that better,” he said.
When asked what parents can do to enhance their children's development, Dr. Boyce had a simple answer: Communicate.
”One of the differences that we do know about between low and high socioeconomic status families is that high socioeconomic status families just talk to their kids more,” Dr. Boyce said. ”Between birth and the third birthday, low socioeconomic status children hear 30 million fewer words than do kids growing up in middle and upper class families.”