Increased financial support for poor mothers may increase baby’s brain activity, study finds

New research suggests that giving extra money to low-income mothers may alter the brain development of their infants.

Brain measurements at age 1 showed faster activity in key brain regions in infants whose low-income families received more than $300 a month for a year, compared to those who received $20 a month, US researchers reported on Monday.

The same type of brain activity has been linked in older children to learning abilities and other developments, although it is not clear whether the differences found will persist or influence the future of infants.

The researchers are studying whether the payments led to better nutrition, less parental stress or other benefits for the infants. There were no restrictions on how the money was spent.

The findings suggest that poverty alleviation may directly affect infant brain development, said lead author Dr. Kimberly Noble, professor of neuroscience and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

“The brain changes demonstrate the remarkable malleability of the brain, especially in early childhood,” she said.

Although the researchers could not rule out that the observed differences in total brain activity in the two groups were due to chance, they found significant differences in the frontal region, related to learning and thinking abilities. Higher frequency activity was about 20% higher among infants whose families received the largest payments.

The findings build on evidence that cash support can improve outcomes for older children, said co-author Katherine Magnuson, director of the National Institute for Poverty and Economic Mobility Research, based in the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

It’s also the first rigorous evidence of how payments can affect children in the early years of life, she said. The results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study recruited mothers shortly after childbirth at hospitals in four metropolitan areas: Minneapolis-St. Paul, New Orleans, New York and Omaha. The women reported an average family income of around $20,000 and were randomly assigned to receive $333 or $20 each month on debit cards. The money was provided by private funders and recipients could spend it as they wished.

The larger cash payments in the study were similar to those distributed to low-income families during the pandemic under President Joe Biden’s child tax credit program, which ended last month.

The study “couldn’t be more relevant to the current moment,” said Dr. Joan Luby, professor of child psychiatry at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

While the renewal of the tax credit is uncertain, “this study should really tell Congress how enormously important it is,” Luby said. She reviewed the study for the scientific journal but was not involved in the research.

The mothers enrolled in the study were mostly black and Hispanic with no college education. As the infants approached their first birthday, the researchers made home visits to test the children in person. The infants were fitted with special caps covered with electrodes that detect electrical signals that brain cells use to communicate with each other.

Home visits have stopped due to the pandemic, so researchers don’t have full data on the 1,000 mothers who have signed up since 2018. They reported results of 435 but hope to resume home visits This year.

The study is ongoing and payments to families will continue until at least their children’s fourth birthday.

Natasha Pilkauskas, associate professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, called it a “very important study” but said more research was needed to confirm the results and see if they applied to children. older than infants.

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