Brain anatomy links to family income and academic success

New research provides further explanation for the ‘achievement gap’ – the overall inferior performance in standardized tests and academic scores for students from lower-income families relatively to those of wealthier students.

Anatomic differences in the brain are linked to family income and academic success – a new study reveals (credit: Olivares J.-L./MIT)

Anatomic differences in the brain are linked to family income and academic success – a new study reveals (credit: Olivares J.-L./MIT)

The issue of the ‘achievement gap’ has been known for years. Now, a new study led by researchers at MIT and Harvard University adds depth to the understanding of the phenomenon. After imaging the brain of high- and low-income students, the researchers found that wealthier students have thicker brain cortex in areas associated with visual perception and knowledge accumulation, and that these differences correlate with performance in academic standardized tests. “Just as you would expect, there’s a real cost to not living in a supportive environment. We can see it not only in test scores, in educational attainment, but within the brains of these children” – says MIT’s John Gabrieli, co-author of the study. “To me, it’s a call to action. You want to boost the opportunities for those for whom it doesn’t come easily in their environment.”

The study included 58 students aged 12 or 13. Out of these, 35 were from high-income families and the remaining 23 from lower-income families. Low-income students were defined on the basis of qualifying for free or reduced-price school lunch. The test used to assess their performance was the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was used to produce images of the candidates’ brain.

The researchers did not explore possible reasons for the differences in brain anatomy, although previous studies have shown that lower-income students are more likely to suffer from stress in early childhood, have less access to educational resources and receive less exposure to spoken language early in life. They also point out that the structural differences they found are not necessarily permanent. “There’s so much strong evidence that brains are highly plastic” – says Gabrieli. “Our findings don’t mean that further educational support, home support, all those things, couldn’t make big differences”.

Future studies will concentrate on designing educational programs to help closing the ‘achievement gap’. “Over the past decade we’ve been able to identify a growing number of educational interventions that have managed to have notable impacts on students’ academic achievement as measured by standardized tests” – says Martin West, co-author of the study. “What we don’t know anything about is the extent to which those interventions — whether it be attending a very high-performing charter school, or being assigned to a particularly effective teacher, or being exposed to a high-quality curricular program — improves test scores by altering some of the differences in brain structure that we’ve documented, or whether they had those effects by other means”.

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Carlo Bradac

Carlo Bradac

Dr Carlo Bradac is a Research Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He studied physics and engineering at the Polytechnic of Milan (Italy) where he achieved his Bachelor of Science (2004) and Master of Science (2006) in Engineering for Physics and Mathematics. During his employment experience, he worked as Application Engineer and Process Automation & Control Engineer. In 2012 he completed his PhD in Physics at Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia). He worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Sydney University and Macquarie University, before moving to UTS upon receiving the Chancellor Postdoctoral Research and DECRA Fellowships.

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