Children’s neighborhoods may affect their developing brains, new study finds

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Children living in low-income neighborhoods with “hands-off” standards for safety showed higher levels of responsiveness in a brain region associated with emotional processing and threat detection. Image credit: photostocklight/Shutterstock.com

The conversationThe big idea

According to our team’s new study, children who grow up in more deprived neighborhoods – that is, those with poor housing quality, more poverty, and lower levels of employment and education – show observable increases in brain activity when looking at emotional faces on a screen. Importantly, we found that this association was only true when adults in these neighborhoods also lacked strong shared norms about crime and violence prevention.

Our findings highlight that where children live and the resources of others in the neighborhood can affect brain development. But neighbors can help protect children from these brain effects when they are able to establish positive social norms about protecting each other and preventing violence.

To arrive at these results, we recruited families from southern Michigan neighborhoods with above-average levels of disadvantage. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to measure teens’ brain activity as they watched facial expressions of different emotions. We focused on observing brain activity in the amygdala, a region of the brain responsible for detecting threats and processing emotions.

We used neighborhood census data on factors such as homeownership rates, percentage of families living below the poverty line, and percentage unemployed to measure neighborhood disadvantage. We then asked randomly selected neighbors in each family to answer questions about social norms in their neighborhood, particularly regarding shared beliefs about preventing crime and violence.

We found that young people aged 7 to 19 who lived in more deprived neighborhoods had greater amygdala reactivity to fearful and angry faces. But neighbors who shared strong social norms, such as believing that adults should do something if children fight, seemed to offset this effect. That is, neighborhood disadvantage was related to amygdala responsiveness only when neighbors had more passive attitudes regarding violence prevention.

Family engagement not only strengthens the family, but also the health of the community, which can have beneficial effects on child development.

why is it important

In 2020, approximately 6.4 million children in the United States lived in neighborhoods with a poverty rate of 30% or more. Studies show that young people who grow up in poorer neighborhoods are more likely to perform worse in school and have more serious mental health problems.

Poor neighborhoods introduce higher risks to children that go beyond a family’s own resources or environment. These neighborhoods increase children’s exposure to violent crime and physical hazards such as pollution, toxic substances and road traffic, and they reduce access to healthy food options and quality schools.

Our research, along with other recent studies, highlights that neighborhood disadvantages can be “under the skin.” In other words, it can affect a child’s development by shaping the structure and function of the brain, in addition to affecting other body systems, such as the stress response system.

Unfortunately, studies show that structural factors such as where highways are built and how neighborhood boundaries are defined can concentrate disadvantage in specific neighborhoods. This, in turn, makes it harder for neighbors to build strong relationships and norms. So while neighbors can work to promote a more positive environment for children, policy changes may be needed to help neighbors and families thrive in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

What other research is being done

Recent studies by other researchers have attempted to understand why living in a poor neighborhood affects brain development and to identify additional factors that may protect children.

For example, in an as-yet-unpublished peer-reviewed study, researchers found that deadly gun violence within a mile of children’s homes was linked to communication between brain regions important to emotional processing and self-regulation. And, like our study, they found that this effect was offset by positive neighbor relationships.

Other work shows that exposure to air pollution from automobile traffic is associated with differences in brain development in children.The conversation

Gabriela Suarez, PhD Candidate in Developmental Psychology, University of Michigan

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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