The chronic stress of childhood poverty can trigger physical changes that have lifelong psychological effects, a study of adult brains has shown.
“Some of the anxiety disorders, depression, post traumatic stress disorders, impulsive aggression and substance abuse we’re seeing in adults might be traced to a stressful childhood,” says Cornell’s Gary W. Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology.
The environmental and developmental psychologist joined researchers from three other universities to publish findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences as “Effects of childhood poverty and chronic stress on regulatory brain function in adulthood.” The 15-year study confirms something Evans has long suspected: “Early experiences of poverty become embedded in the brain. Exposure to chronic stress in early childhood – when the amygdala and prefrontal cortex are rapidly developing – produces lasting neurological changes,” he says.
The longitudinal study followed 49 rural 9-year-olds for 15 years – checking in at ages 9, 13, 17 and 24. “Even if the 24-year-olds had escaped poverty and were making a comfortable living,” Evans says, “functional magnetic resonance imaging scans of two parts of the brain that process emotion, the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, revealed neural patterns for emotion regulatory dysfunction.
“Chronic stresses of childhood poverty may make it harder to regulate your emotions and this remains whether or not you are upwardly mobile as an adult,” he adds.
The report by researchers at the University of Michigan, University of Denver, University of Illinois at Chicago and Cornell said “… children living in poverty are more likely to be exposed to chronic multiple stressors, including violence, family turmoil, separation from family members and substandard living environments.”
Pilyoung Kim, M.A. ’07, Ph.D. ’09, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Denver, is the lead author on the paper. Support for the long-term study came from the National Institutes of Health, William T. Grant Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.