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We know poverty can prevent us from eating nutritious foods and getting the medical care we need, but what does not having enough do to the brain?

Poverty, at its most extreme, kills — people all over the world die from causes related to malnutrition and from a lack of access to healthcare. 

On a global level, diseases that remain untreated as a direct result of poverty — diseases such as HIV, diarrhea, tuberculosis, pneumonia, malaria and other tropical diseases — are responsible for an awful lot of deaths that could have been prevented, if only people had physical and financial access to healthcare services and medications.

Often, though, poverty affects health, and health affects poverty, in slightly less obvious ways. Perhaps that direly-needed trip to the doctor was indeed made, but medical bills mean some family members can't continue to go to school, continuing the cycle of poverty. Perhaps a family has enough to eat, but is forced to cook its food on open fires or traditional stoves, causing fumes that lead to respiratory diseases. Perhaps living in crowded circumstances with low levels of hygiene constantly makes people ill, and perhaps looking after ill family members deprives them of the opportunity to make money that would otherwise raise the family above poverty. 

So far, this is all stuff you've heard before. But just what does poverty do to the brain? A number of recent studies graphically demonstrate that the effects of poverty go beyond physical health.

Poverty Makes The Brain Smaller?

Neuroscientists Kimberly Noble from Columbia University in New York City and Elizabeth Sowell from Children's Hospital Los Angeles, California, led the largest-ever study into how poverty affects the brain. Published in the journal Nature Neuroscience in March 2015, the study examined the brains of 1,099 children, adolescents and young adults in cities across the United States using imaging techniques. 

Their findings were quite shocking: the brains of kids and youngsters from the lowest income group (under $25,000) were shown to have up to six percent less surface area than those from the highest income groups (over $150,000). 

What's more, differences were profound even within the low-income group itself. Young people from poor families who made even a few thousand dollars a year extra were found to have better language and decision-making skills. 

Though the study doesn't show how changes in income level affect brains over time, it does demonstrate that the consequences of poberty reach beyond physical health. But just when do these effects set in? Martha Farah , a cognitive neuroscientist from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and her colleagues conducted another study, so far unpublished, in which they imaged the brains of 44 month-old African American girls from various economic bakgrounds in Philadelphia. Amazingly, the poorer baby girls were found to have physically smaller brains even at this tender age.

Farah's study is still ongoing at this point — she and her colleagues hope to continue tracking these girls until they are two years old, visiting their homes and studying how their home environments affect their cognitive outcomes. At the moment, it seems like the stress, poorer nutrition, and lower quality medical care their mothers experienced during pregnancy left their marks on the poorer babies before they were even born.

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