Positive parenting may offset brain effects of poverty

(Reuters Health) - A positive parenting style might protect kids from the negative effect that growing up in poverty is thought to have on their brain development, Australian researchers say.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans and academic indicators, the study team found differences in the brains of kids growing up in the most disadvantaged environments. But those with supportive parents showed brain development more like that of peers who were less disadvantaged.

“Society is struggling with righting equality, particularly economic equality,” said senior study author Nick Allen, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon in Eugene who is also affiliated with the University of Melbourne.

“We know from social science that being raised in a socioeconomically disadvantaged environment is bad for development,” he told Reuters Health in a phone interview. “What we’re trying to understand now is how children are affected and what we can do about it.”

The researchers analyzed data on 166 adolescents between ages 11 and 20 in Melbourne who were participating in a larger study. All the kids had up to three MRI brain scans at early, middle and late adolescence, and researchers also assessed their family and neighborhood socioeconomic environments, academic success and characteristics of their parents.

The examination of parents included educational level, income and the family’s socioeconomic status within the immediate surrounding neighborhood of about 250 homes.

To gauge parenting behaviors, researchers observed as the adolescents and their mothers completed two 20-minute interactions such as event-planning or problem-solving tasks that displayed verbal and nonverbal reactions. Parental behaviors considered to be positive included approving, validating, affectionate or humorous comments.

The research team found that neighborhood, but not family-level, economic measures were associated with differences in brain development between early adolescence and the late teen years. The most disadvantaged kids showed differences from others in the brain’s temporal lobes in particular, which could affect stress, memory and language, the study authors write in JAMA Psychiatry.

“Adolescence is an important time for the development of the brain, particularly in terms of factors that influence your life and the ability to regulate behavior and form relationships,” Allen said.

Positive parenting behaviors, however, seemed to moderate the negative effects of the poor environment, especially in the brain region known as the amygdala, which has a central role in regulating emotions.

In contrast, the combination of growing up in a disadvantaged neighborhood and low parental positivity was linked to increased odds of dropping out of school, primarily among boys.

“We were surprised to find that parenting can actually change development and behaviors,” Allen said. “We still need to work for political and social change to lift people out of poverty, but supporting families could be part of that picture.”

Limitations of the study include the fact that parenting and socioeconomic circumstances were only assessed at one time point, the authors note. They also didn’t have data on brain development and other factors prior to adolescence that could influence the results.

The study also doesn’t prove that poverty caused the brain differences seen among teens, or the changes seen over time in individual children.

Still, this link between environment and biology continues the conversation about the increased risks associated with low socioeconomic status, such as poor mental health, physical health, school readiness, academic success, high school completion and career opportunities, said Jamie Hanson of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, who wasn’t involved in the study.

“We’re just starting to realize more and more about the effects of different experiences on the brain,” he told Reuters Health by phone. “It speaks to how experience becomes biologically embedded in us.”

The next research step is to work with those disadvantaged communities and families, he added. In Pittsburgh, for example, neighborhood community redevelopment programs are beginning to reach out to families to get them more involved in family and community activities.

“Parents can be a powerful source of change,” Hanson said. “They have the agency to help their kids, even under challenging circumstances.”

SOURCE: JAMA Psychiatry, online June 21, 2017.