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UW Think Tank: Brain Scans Show Poor Kids Are Dumb

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Posted at Right Wisconsin.

Charles Murray, call your office.

Are poor people actually biologically dumber than the rich? Do MRI scans of brains suggest that poor children (many of them minorities) lack the gray matter for long-term memory, complex learning, and the moderation of emotional behavior?

It's not that hard to  to imagine the reaction if a conservative think tank published a "scientific" study along these lines.

But what about a progressive think tank at UW-Madison? Would it be all right then?

The latest issue of the La Follete Policy Report, published by the Robert M. La Follette School of Public affairs at UW-Madison, features an article titled "Using Brain Scans to Understand Links between Economic Status and Cognition."

Its author is Barbara (Bobbi) Wolfe, a professor of public affairs, economics, and population health sciences, and a former director of the La Follette School, who relies on MRI scans to analyze the differences in the brains of poor kids. 

Her basic thesis: poverty causes kids brains to shrink, making them dumber. She doesn’t actually use the word 'dumb," but the message is pretty hard to miss.

She puts it this way: "We view the brain as a bridge between biology and the environments in which poor, middle-income, and rich children grow up; we hypothesize that a child’s environment affects brain development."

In a rare moment of caution, Wolfe notes that: "just because a relationship is observed consistently across time and countries does not mean the link is causal or that we understand the nature of the tie."
 
But she then proceeds to draw all manner of links:
 
After processing neuroimaging data from each subject we conducted a random effects regression analysis that controlled for the wave of the MRI scan, the total volume of the brain, the child’s age, the child’s sex, and interactions between age and sex. We did this for all of our regions of interest of the brainincluding the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex subregions, the occipital lobe, and the cerebellum. We estimate the influence of socioeconomic status on specific regions of the brain. Our baseline measure of socioeconomic status is tied to household income. We average income levels for each child and divide the children into three groups: low income (families with income below $35,000), middle income (families with incomes between $35,001 and $100,000), and high income (families with incomes over $100,000).
 
What does Wolfe say they found? Let’s start with the hippocampus, which is associated with "long-term memory functioning… learning, control of neuroendocrine functions, and moderation of emotional behavior." It turns out the poor are short-changed.

Our analysis finds evidence of a significant association between the size of the hippocampus and family income.  These results clearly suggest that for children in higher income  families the hippocampus is larger than among those in lower  income families. The findings suggest a deprivation difference; that is, a child in a low-income family has a hippocampus that makes up smaller part of her/his brain compared to middle and higher income children. This difference in the hippocampus, perhaps due to stress tied to growing up in poverty, might partially explain differences in long-term memory functioning and, in particular, differences in learning, control of neuroendocrine functions, and moderation of emotional behavior.

It’s pretty much the same story with the the prefrontal cortex which is "considered to be central to attention, inhibition, emotion regulation, complex learning, and mental processing." Here again the poor come up short. 
 
Read the rest here...

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