This column, On the Mind, is a series about the latest in cognitive science and neuroscience-related research that applies to our everyday lives. This biweekly series is for those interested in cutting-edge findings about the practical side of habits, memories, multitasking and the human-brain interface. What are the recent studies, and what is the context? See what science says and how you can apply it to your life.
In the debate about nature versus nurture, most of us agree that it’s a little bit of both. The latest studies looking at the brain development of teens and pre-teens have focused on the latter, particularly in socioeconomically disadvantaged families. Apparently, a poorer upbringing affects the way brains transform from childhood to adulthood in a wide range of functions and behaviors. Researchers are finding that parents can make a difference despite their challenged circumstances, which gives great hope for the future.
The catch, of course, is that parenting style matters the most. In a study released last week, the latest research in this small field emphasized that positive parenting tactics — such as approving, validating, affectionate or humorous reactions — are the best way to boost kids who don’t grow up with many opportunities or material possessions at home. This is particularly true for young males, reported professors at the University of Oregon and University of Melbourne in Australia. This may give a new meaning to the idea of “helicopter parents.”
More specifically, studies from last year and this year have found that socioeconomic status and brain structure is highly correlated. In particular, cortical thickness varies, which could have a major impact on language and literacy development. These differences in brain development could also affect memory, executive functioning and social-emotional processing, said researchers at Columbia University.
Other studies in the field say this link between environment and biology influences all kinds of outcomes for teens, including academic achievement, mental health, physical health, school readiness and job opportunities. Professors in New York and Missouri have called for more studies at the intersections of pediatrics, child psychology, pediatrics, neuroscience and public policy to understand these effects and make changes.
As scientists from different fields partner to deepen the connections we know about parenting, brain development, socioeconomic status and future adolescent success, we can draw a few conclusions.
1. Parents can help.
Studies in this area show consistent results. When parents take an active role in their child’s upbringing, it helps. The areas of the brain that control reactions to stress (such as the temporal lobe) and emotion and empathy (such as the amygdala) develop properly. In fact, the research is so strong that the National Academies of Sciences released a major statement last year that said “parenting matters” and called for parental support of children ages 0-8.
2. Parents can’t do it alone.
In some studies, brain development is related to family socioeconomics, including parents’ income, education and occupation. In other studies, brain development is more related to neighborhood-wide socioeconomics, indicating a societal impact on thoughts and behaviors. (Think of a predominantly blue-collar community that poses expected, conventional standards for children and how they should think and join the workforce.) Researchers in this area agree that interventions on the family level can work, as documented by a report released in the Netherlands in May, but ultimately, economic equality and social change at the community level must happen, too. Neighborhood community redevelopment programs in Pittsburgh, for example, are trying to do just that.
3. Many of these studies are small.
Since the correlations are complex and specific, scientists must spend time working with a select number of parents and kids to understand what’s happening in the brain and take MRI scans. Most studies incorporate about 50-200 study participants, which isn’t much but has been enough so far to show a significant difference. A handful of studies that investigated 800-1,000 brain scans show us the potential for the future.
4. These studies may vary across geography.
The study released last week was focused on kids in Australia, where social, economic and health care structures vary significantly from the United States, for example. Others have heavily focused on New York City — emphasizing poorer boroughs such as the Bronx — as case studies of neighborhoods. These areas differ from rural parts the country, which could vary widely from coal-mining communities in West Virginia to farming communities in the South and California. Researchers still have questions about race, ethnicity and gender, too.
5. Future studies will focus more on brain scans.
Researchers in this field primarily work in psychology, psychiatry and health policy, and they’re beginning to bring in neuroscience experts. The evidence is there — MRI scans clearly show a difference — but they’re often repeated only once or twice in the same teen. Future studies will look more closely at the changes to understand exactly what’s happening. For example, do negative impacts on the temporal lobe necessarily mean kids will have a tougher time with stress, memory and language? Do positive impacts on the amygdala (through positive parenting) mean a definite improvement in emotion and relationships? A study of 800 MRI scans from the National Institutes of Health recently showed larger cohorts are possible and needed for this field to draw significant conclusions.
Carolyn Crist is a freelance health and science journalist for regional and national publications. She writes the Escape Artist column for Paste Travel, On the Mind column for Paste Science and Stress Test column for Paste Health.