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Response to “Socioeconomic status and the brain: mechanistic insights from human and animal research”

As we have witnessed firsthand through the recent presidential election campaign season, this topic is as electrifying as any, placing labels of “haves” and “have-nots”. With the notion held by some that this is due to a lack of effort or motivational drive alone, disdain is often an emotion conjured in the minds of many when discussing poverty; but, what if the differences between an individual of high socioeconomic status and lower status was more than just attitudes, but was actually manifestation of completely different thought process? What if just the idea of being of a lower socioeconomic status was detrimental or toxic to the long-term development of the brain?

Socioeconomic status might have neural effects (source)

Numerous studies have begun to bring to light evidence that perhaps motivation or will may not be the only difference between socioeconomic status (SES), but it may lie even more intrinsically. Some evidence exists that individuals of different socioeconomic status may perceive and process stimuli differently, as children of a lower SES had increased activation of the right middle frontal gyrus when attempting to learn unfamiliar rules, which is an thought to inhibit the accuracy of applying new rules (Sheridan et al, unpublished data). Although this differential processing exists, do we truly have enough knowledge in the field to declare a certain pattern of neural activation as detrimental to one’s mental processing?

Knowing this information, what can be done to rectify this? The challenges, both political (laws/ideals) and physical (equal access to education/housing/etc), of leveling the financial playing field would be astronomical. Political pressures alone would drive this issue off the deep end, as the thought of taking from the top to help the bottom has been a recurring theme among politics, but still has reached nothing but political brinkmanship. As the issue of the so-called “fiscal cliff” continues to near, it is an issue soon to be raised in the public eye once again. Perhaps knowing more about how perception changes between SES classes would allow us to better prepare educational materials for each individual.

Even if this was possible, it is folly to assume that problems of this nature would not exist in a society that keeps all individuals into a single socioeconomic class. Unequal access to resources, such as financial, nutritional and educational, may not be the deciding factor of differential neural processing. We cannot ignore other factors, such as parental care, that may have detrimental effects on neural growth and development. This article highlights some of the systemic differences seen in rodents with different qualities of parental care. Offspring that experienced lower maternal grooming and licking have higher anxiety and higher corticosterone levels than those with more maternal grooming and licking (Hackman et al, 2009). The quality of parental care may not be dependent on socioeconomic status, as parents that higher positions within a company or organization may not be available or easily accessible by their children.

Although neuroscience can play a role in elucidating the changes that occur with differences in SES, caution must be taken when attempting to examine the whole picture, as each individual may have a wide variety of reasons or backgrounds that impact neural and cognitive development. Additionally, care should be used to prevent referring to low SES as a mal-adaptive state, as that is still something that remains shrouded in uncertainty.

–Brian Prall

Want to cite this post?

Prall, B. (2012). Response to “Socioeconomic status and the brain: mechanistic insights from human and animal research”. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
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Hackman, DM., Farah, MJ., Socioeconomic status and the developing brain. Trends Cogn. Sci. 13, 65-73 (2009).

Hackman, D.A., Farah, MJ., Meaney, MJ., Socioeconomic status and the brain: mechanistic insights from human and animal research. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 11,651-659.


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