I have written about poverty/SES and its effects on brain development/IQ earlier too,and this new review article by Farah and Hackman in TICS is a very good introduction to anyone interested in the issue.
The article reviews the behavioral studies that show that SES is correlated with at least the two brain systems of executive function and language abilities.It also review physiological data that shows that even when behavioral outcomes do not differ ERP can show differential activation in the brains of people with low and middle SES , thus suggesting that differences that may not be detected on behavioral measures may still exist. They also review (f)MRI data that shows no structural differences in the brains of low and middle SES children, but definite functional differences.they also review experimental manipulation of social status in labarotaories, and show how those studies also indicate that SES and executive function are correlated.
They then turn to the million dollar question of the direction of causality and for this infer indirectly based on the SES-IQ causal linkages.
What is the cause of SES differences in brain function? Is it contextual priming? Is it social causation, reflecting the influence of SES on brain development? Alternatively, is it social selection, in which abilities inherited from parents lead to lower SES? Current research on SES and brain development is not designed to answer this question. However, research on SES and IQ is relevant and supports a substantial role of SES and its correlated experience as causal factors.
Slightly less than half of the SES-related IQ variability in adopted children is attributable to the SES of the adoptive family rather than the biological. This might underestimate environmental influences because the effects of prenatal and early postnatal environment are included in the estimates of genetic influence. Additional evidence comes from studies of when poverty was experienced in a child’s life. Early poverty is a better predictor of later cognitive achievement than poverty in middle- or late-childhood, an effect that is difficult to explain by genetics. SES modifies the heritability of IQ, such that in the highest SES families, genes account for most of the variance in IQ because environmental influences are in effect at ceiling in this group, whereas in the lowest SES families, variance in IQ is overwhelmingly dominated by environmental influences because these are in effect the limiting factor in this group. In addition, a growing body of research indicates that cognitive performance is modified by epigenetic mechanisms, indicating that experience has a strong influence on gene expression and resultant phenotypic cognitive traits . Lastly, considerable evidence of brain plasticity in response to experience throughout development indicates that SES influences on brain development are plausible.
Differences in the quality and quantity of schooling is one plausible mechanism that has been proposed. However, many of the SES differences summarized in this article are present in young children with little or no experience of school , so differences in formal education cannot, on their own, account for all of the variance in cognition and brain development attributable to SES. The situation is analogous to that of SES disparities in health, which are only partly explained by differential access to medical services and for which other psychosocial mechanisms are important causal factors .
The last point is really important and can be extended. Access to health services for low SES people may be a reason why , for eg, more schizophrenia incidence is found in low SES neighbourhoods. which brings us to the same chicken-and-egg question of the drift theory of schizophrenia- whether people with schizophrenia drift into low SES or low SES is a risk factor in itself. Exactly this point was brought to my attention when I was interacting with a few budding psychiatrists recently, this Martha Farah theory about the SES leading to lower IQ/ cognitive abilities. It is important to acknowledge that low SES not only leads to left hypo-frontality (another symptom of schizophrenia), schizophrenia is supposed to be due to lessened mylienation and again nutritional factors may have a role to play; also access to health care, exposure to chronic stress and lesser subjective feelings of control may all be mediating afctors that lead low SS to lead to schizophrenia/ psychosis.Also remember that schizophrenia is sort of a devlopmenetal disorder.
Well, I digressed a bit, but the idea is that not only does low SES affect ‘normal’ cognitive abilities, it may even increase the risk for ‘abnormal’ cognitive abilities that may lead to psychosis, and his effect of SES on IQ/cognitive abilities/ risk of mental diseases is mediated by the effect of SES on the developing brain. I have already covered the putative mechanisms by which SES may affect brain development, but just to recap, here I quote from the paper:
Candidate causal pathways from environmental differences to differences in brain development include lead exposure, cognitive stimulation, nutrition, parenting styles and transient or chronic hierarchy effects. One particularly promising area for investigation is the effect of chronic stress. Lower-SES is associated with higher levels of stress in addition to changes in the function of physiological stress response systems in children and adults. Changes in such systems are likely candidates to mediate SES effects as they impact both cognitive performance and brain regions, such as the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, in which there are SES differences.
We can only hope that the evil of low SES is recognized as soon as possible and if for nothing else, than for advancing science, some intervention studies are done that manipulate the SES variables in the right direction and thus ensure that the full cognitive potential of the children flowers.
HACKMAN, D., & FARAH, M. (2009). Socioeconomic status and the developing brain Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13 (2), 65-73 DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2008.11.003