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Diagnosed with a bad case of growing up poor?

What if how wealthy your parents were before you were born and while you were developing changed who you are, how smart you are and how well you are going to do in life? Well, it turns out that your socioeconomic status during development really does affect your life that dramatically. In a recent review by Meany et al. the authors discuss how different aspects of low socioeconomic status affect childhood development. In the first part of this blog post I will discuss the findings of this article and in the second I will discuss the ethical issues of discussing this type of human condition as a disease.

Socioeconomic status’ influence on development (source)

According to Meany et al. socioeconomic status has wide ranging and influential effects on the developmental outcomes of childhood development. These effects may be accounted for by three quantifiable variables: access to quality prenatal care, the quality of parental care, and the quality of stimulation from the home environment.

Prenatal care has long been established as a major predictor fetal health and body weight as well as longer-term developmental outcomes 2,3 which have major impacts on mental health and ability. These changes can be measures using behavioral metrics such as externalization, shyness and IQ as well as anatomical changes in brain regions such as the hippocampus, the anterior cingulate and the orbitofrontal cortex 1. These descriptions are important establishing differences from a neuroscientific prospective, but let’s not get bogged down.

Parental care and the amount and quality of environmental stimulation are intertwined. Generally speaking the quality of parental care is directly related to the stress level of the parent, mainly the mother, and how much time they have to spend with eh child. A lower socioeconomic status is correlated with spending less quality time, initiating stricter and less consistent discipline. Environmental stimulation mostly comes down to the availability of books and other stimulating resources.

Now, is it fair to talk about poor people in this way?

Is it productive to catalogue all the things poor families have wrong with the way they raise children then find correlates in brain development?

We have long known that prenatal healthcare increases the health of a fetus and improves the developmental outcomes of the resulting child. We know that inconsistent discipline and a tumultuous home environment negatively impacts the development of a child. We know that early childhood education leads to long term improvement in academic scores, increased employment and decreased risk of incarceration.

The way I see it this is more or less a phrenological analysis that allows for a scientific stratification of different socioeconomic classes. As neuroscientists we need to be working on problems that can be solved and whose dissection will have a net positive effect on society.

People who grew up in a lower socioeconomic household don’t need to be cured. That is not to say that we as citizen of the world don’t need to work to improve healthcare or expand educational programs.

But I for one don’t want to be diagnosed with a bad case of growing up poor.

–Kenneth McCullough

Want to cite this post?

McCullough, K. (2012). Diagnosed with a bad case of growing up poor? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
, from


1. Hackman DA, Farah MJ, Meaney MJ. Socioeconomic status and the brain: mechanistic insights from human and animal research. Nat
Rev Neurosci. 2010 Sep; 11(9):651-9. Review. PubMed PMID: 20725096; PubMed
Central PMCID: PMC2950073.

2. Meaney, M. J., Szyf, M. & Seckl, J. R. Epigenetic mechanisms of perinatal
programming of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal function and health. Trends Mol.
Med. 13, 269-277 (2007).

3. Uno, H., Tarara, R., Else, G., Suleman, M. A. Sapolsky, R. M. Hippocampal
damage associated with prenatal glucocorticoid exposure. J. Neurosci. 9,
1705-1711 (1989).

4. Kramer MS. Determinants
of low birth weight: methodological assessment and meta-analysis.
Bull World Health Organ. 1987;65(5):663-737. Review. PubMed PMID: 3322602; PubMed Central PMCID:


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