Studies going back to the 1950s have linked objective socioeconomic factors—like parental income or education—to child health and achievement. Recent studies have extended this research, indicating that parental socioeconomic status (SES) also affects physiologic brain function in children. A new study, while small, is the first to suggest another potent factor: the mother’s self-perceived social status.
Margaret Sheridan, PhD, at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Labs of Cognitive Neuroscience, and colleagues studied 38 children, ages 8 to 12 years. Each child gave a saliva sample to measure levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and 19 also underwent functional MRI of the brain focusing on the hippocampus, a structure responsible for long-term memory formation (required for learning) and for reducing stress responses.
Their mothers, meanwhile, were shown a picture of a ladder and were asked to rank their social status on a scale of 1 to 10 as compared with others in the United States. …
If there wasn’t enough reason to be concerned about children suffering psychological and physical neglect—by their family, in foster homes, or from war or weather catastrophes—we now have three good lines of evidence that neglect harms a child’s developing brain.
But there’s also hope that some of this harm can be undone if caught in time.
Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidelines on attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), lowering the minimum age at which physicians should consider drug treatment from 6 years to 4 years.
But here’s the problem. “Current behavioral criteria for ADHD are most effective only after age 8 or 9,” says Margaret Sheridan of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Children’s Hospital Boston. “If you use them at age 3 to 6, then you’re wrong about half the time, and the child will stop meeting the criteria by age 8.”
Little kids, especially boys, are naturally distractible, impulsive and fidgety. Some mature more slowly; some are just the youngest in their class. Many will grow out of their wild but largely age-appropriate behaviors.
But letting true ADHD fester, explaining symptoms away as “kids just being kids,” deprives children of the benefits of behavioral or pharmacologic treatment at a time when their young brains are highly responsive. …
For the third year running, my daughter is participating in a dyslexia study she entered at age 5, just after finishing preschool. Thinking she was part of a game, she spent about 45 minutes lying still in a rocket ship (in reality, an MRI scanner), doing mental tasks she believed would help lost aliens find their way back to their planet.
All the while, her brain was being imaged, helping a team led by Nadine Gaab of Children’s Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience to find a pattern indicating that she might be at risk for dyslexia. Such signatures might flag children who could benefit from early intervention, sparing them the frustration of struggling with dyslexia once in school.