poverty trauma

Impact of poverty on children's brain activity

April 2, 2019

Science Daily/University of East Anglia

New research reveals the impact of poverty on children's brain activity. Researchers studied the brain function of children aged between four months and four years in rural India, and compared their results with children from families in Midwest America. They found that children in India from lower-income backgrounds, where mothers also had a low level of education, had weaker brain activity and were more likely to be distracted.


Children born into poverty show key differences in early brain function -- according to new research from the University of East Anglia.


Researchers studied the brain function of children aged between four months and four years in rural India.


They found that children from lower-income backgrounds, where mothers also had a low level of education, had weaker brain activity and were more likely to be distracted.


Lead researcher Prof John Spencer, from UEA's School of Psychology, said: "Each year, 250 million children in low and middle income countries fail to reach their developmental potential.


"There is therefore a growing need to understand the global impact of poverty on early brain and behavioural development.


"Previous work has shown that poverty and early adversities significantly impact brain development, contributing to a vicious cycle of poverty. But few studies have looked at brain function early in development.


"We wanted to find out more about the functional brain development of children born into poorer backgrounds -- to see why many do not reach their full potential. This work is the first step in intervention efforts designed to boost early brain health before adversity can take hold."


The team, which included researchers from the University of Stirling, carried out their study in Uttar Pradesh, which is the most highly populated region in India.


Using a portable 'functional near infrared spectroscopy' (fNIRS) device, they measured the brain activity of 42 children aged between four months and four years in rural settings.


fNIRS systems shine near-infrared light into cortical tissue via sources placed on the head via a special cap, linked to a computer.


They investigated the children's 'visual working memory' -- or how well they are able to store visual information and detect changes in the visual environment when they occur.


"We use our visual working memory around 10,000 times a day. Children begin to develop this skill in early infancy and it gradually improves through childhood and adolescence. We know that it is an excellent marker of early cognitive development," said Prof Spencer.


The study was conducted in partnership with the Community Empowerment Lab based in Lucknow, India. Participants were recruited from villages around Shivgarh in Uttar Pradesh.


They took part in a visual test involving blinking displays of coloured squares. The goal of the test was to see if children could remember the colours well enough to detect that there was always a colour change on one side of the display, while the colours on the other side always stayed the same.


Factors such as parental education, income, caste, religion, the number children in the family, and economic status were taken into account.


The results were compared with children from families in Midwest America.


The research team found that the children in India from families with low maternal education and income showed weaker brain activity and poorer distractor suppression in the left frontal cortex area of the brain that is involved in working memory.


The study also demonstrates that portable neuroimaging technologies can be used in rural parts of the developing world, bringing innovative technologies to places most in need of early assessment tools.


"Although the impact of adversity on brain development can trap children in an intergenerational cycle of poverty, the massive potential for brain plasticity is also a source of hope.


"By partnering with families in the local community and bringing innovative technologies to the field, we are hoping that together we can break this cycle of poverty in future work."


Predictors of depression, PTSD among African-Americans, Latinos

June 25, 2015

Science Daily/University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Health Sciences

Chronic disease and mental health issues disproportionately affect low-income African-Americans, Latinos and Hispanics. Researchers have developed a screening tool that may provide better treatment.


The first study, published online by the journal Psychological Trauma, analyzed certain types of negative experiences that may affect low-income African-Americans and Latinos. It found five specific environmental factors, which the researchers call "domains," that can predict adult depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.


In the second study, published online by the journal Psychological Assessment, researchers used the same five domains to develop a new screening tool for use in clinical settings. The UCLA Life Adversities Screener, or LADS, is a brief questionnaire that can help providers offer more accurate treatment for stress and trauma.


The five domains identified in the first study are:


• Experiences of discrimination due to racial, ethnic, gender or sexual orientation


• A history of sexual abuse


• A history of violence in the family or from an intimate partner


• A history of violence in an individuals' community


• A chronic fear of being killed or seriously injured


The researchers said the effects of these experiences are cumulative and their impact accrues over a person's lifetime.


"The costs to society of these life experiences are substantial," said Hector Myers, a former UCLA psychology professor and first author of the Psychological Trauma study. (Myers is now a professor at Vanderbilt University.) "We know there is a poorer overall quality of life, a loss of productivity, greater social dependency, disability, health and mental health care costs, and early mortality as a result of repeated experiences of stress and trauma."


In the first study, researchers asked 500 low-income African American and Hispanic men and women to self-report various measures of stress and mental health, including experiences of discrimination, childhood violence, poverty and trauma. Using structural equation modeling -- statistical methods designed to test a concept or theory -- they found a correlation between the cumulative burden of these adversities and the likelihood the subjects would later experience psychological distress. They also found that the greater people's overall burden of these experiences over their lifetime, the greater the likelihood that they would experience more severe symptoms of depression, anxiety and PTSD.


"Unfortunately, much of the psychological distress stemming from chronic life stress and trauma remains undetected and untreated," said Gail Wyatt, a professor of psychiatry at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and a senior author of both studies.


"Only a small proportion of individuals with psychological distress are identified in health care settings, and a smaller fraction of those ever receive appropriate treatment, especially for the experiences of discrimination," said Wyatt, who also is director of UCLA's Center for Culture, Trauma and Mental Health Disparities. "We talk about being discriminated against, but people don't learn how to cope with it effectively throughout their lives. If they don't manage it well enough, the consequences can be long-lasting and life-threatening."


The second study was led by first author Honghu Liu, a professor in the UCLA School of Dentistry. Working with the five domains, the researchers used regression modeling -- a statistical process for estimating relationships among variables -- to develop the LADS, a set of questions health care providers can use to screen patients for the effects of adversity and trauma.


"Given the utility and ease of use, LADS could be effective as a screening tool to identify ethnic and racial minority individuals in primary care settings who have a high trauma burden, and who need more extensive evaluation," said Liu, who is an expert in the design of research studies, data analysis and statistical modeling. "We feel it will capture experiences that could be missed with current screening approaches. This could optimize affordable care as it strives to improve prevention of mental health problems."


The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 16 million people have gained health insurance under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. "The ACA provides a unique opportunity to identify those who have not been assessed for the adversities and trauma that can affect mental health needs. This research could provide the tools to make that assessment," Wyatt said.


"The next step is to offer individuals tools to more effectively cope with the adversities and trauma that they endure. One of the advantages of affordable primary care is that we will have the opportunity to offer skills for people who have not had mental health care for those experiences, one day soon. They will no longer have to manage on their own."



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