Growing up in a poor neighborhood can change children’s brains – and their reactions

Unsplash/Caleb Woods, CC BY

Understanding other people’s facial expressions is an important developmental milestone. It helps us learn nonverbal communication and recognize when someone is angry or scared and prepares us to respond to threats or show empathy for the feelings of others. A growing body of evidence suggests that our neighborhood environment shapes this response in children’s brains in different ways, depending on the dynamics of the neighborhood itself.


  • Sarah Hellwell

    Researcher, Faculty of Health Sciences, Curtin University and Perron Institute for Neurological and Translational Sciences, Curtin University

The amygdala is an important brain structure for recognizing and responding to facial expressions. He is responsible for ourfight or flight” and is sensitive to emotional facial expressions, especially those related to threats.

Although this primitive warning system is useful in protecting us, the amygdala cannot tell the difference between real threats and emotions such as stress, aggression, anger or fear. This means that we often have the same “fight or flight” response to different situations.

A recent study examined the link between neighborhood disadvantage and amygdala reactivity to emotional faces in children. The researchers wanted to understand whether positive or negative social aspects of the neighborhood could influence the reactivity of the amygdala during childhood.

Make Connections

The amygdala is particularly sensitive to our environment, especially during childhood when our brain is developing.

Children exposed to extreme trauma growing up – such as living in a war zone or experiencing physical or emotional abuse – show altered brain pathways for the treatment of fear and anger, with new brain connections allowing faster and more intense emotional responses. This means that children can be more “on guard” and quick to react to negative emotions.

People who grow up in poor neighborhoods may have a enlarged tonsilwhich is related to increased fear.
They are more likely to show increased sensitivity to emotional stimuli. Neighborhood disadvantage and amygdala reactivity are also linked to antisocial children and youth behaviours.

What is less known is how the environment and social processes of neighborhoods can shape the developing brain, for better or for worse. Positive neighborhood social processes can include shared beliefs about appropriate behavior, community support and trust, and the willingness of neighbors to step in for the common good.

To understand how neighborhood environments might influence brains, researchers examined 700 children from different neighborhoods in Michigan, USA. To get accurate neighborhood information, they used census information to assess neighborhood disadvantage based on employment rates, education, property ownership, and income.

The researchers then used birth records to locate families with twins. Twins are useful for this type of research because they live in the same environment and therefore should have the same brain responses. The study included twin families living above and below the poverty line to specifically examine the effects of poor neighborhoods.

The twins suffered task-based magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). They were shown faces for two seconds and matched faces according to whether they were angry, fearful, happy or neutral (no expression). MRI scans detected amygdala reactivity in their real-time scans when viewing faces.

The study also included adults from the same neighborhoods as the twins. These adult neighbors provided an independent neighborhood assessment. There were about four neighbors in each twin family.

Neighbors completed questionnaires on social processes such as community support (eg how willing people are to help their neighbours); informal social order (eg, what someone in the neighborhood might do if a child was left home alone at night); and behavioral norms (for example, how people in the neighborhood might intervene if a child did something dangerous, even if it was not their child).

Disadvantaged neighborhood, hyperactive brains

The study found that experiences of neighborhood disadvantage lead to overactivity of the right amygdala, with children in these neighborhoods being more responsive to facial expressions of anger and fear.

Similarly, if neighbors rated neighborhood social processes as weak and believed that neighbors did not care about each other, children in those neighborhoods were more likely to have a highly reactive amygdala response to emotional faces.

However, the researchers also found that positive social processes in the neighborhood could attenuate or attenuate the relationship between neighborhood disadvantage and amygdala responsiveness.

When neighbors reported that the neighborhood was cooperative and supportive, there was no effect of neighborhood adversity on amygdala responsiveness. Children in these neighborhoods react to expressions of anger and fear in the same way as children in less deprived neighborhoods.

Social connections matter

Neighborhood environments and social connections are critically important in shaping emotional recognition in children’s brains. This influence can be positive or negative, depending on the social dynamics of the neighborhood.

This new research shows that no matter how deprived a neighborhood is, the actions, attitudes and behavior of the people who live there have a very significant influence on how growing children understand and deal with threats. that surround them.

Growing up in a positive, connected neighborhood where people care for each other and act in the best interests of the community is one of the best things we can do to give our children a stable start in life.

The conversation

This story is part of The Conversation’s Breaking the Cycle series, which is about escaping cycles of disadvantage. It is supported by a philanthropic grant from the Paul Ramsay Foundation.

/ Courtesy of The Conversation. This material from the original organization/authors may be ad hoc in nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors.

#Growing #poor #neighborhood #change #childrens #brains #reactions

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *