Kids of less-educated moms may have noisier brains
October 29th, 2013
05:00 PM ET

Kids of less-educated moms may have noisier brains

A mother's level of education has strong implications for a child's development. Northwestern University researchers show in a new study that low maternal education is linked to a noisier nervous system in children, which could affect their learning.

"You really can think of it as static on your radio that then will get in the way of hearing the announcer’s voice," says Nina Kraus, senior author of the study and researcher at the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University.

The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, is part of a larger initiative working with children in public high schools in inner-city Chicago. The adolescents are tracked from ninth to 12th grade. An additional group of children in the gang-reduction zones of Los Angeles are also being tracked.

Kraus and colleagues are more broadly looking at how music experience, through classroom group-based musical experience, could offset certain negative effects of poverty.  But first, they wanted to see what biological effects poverty may have on the adolescents' brain. In this particular study, 66 children - a small sample - in Chicago participated.

Those whose mothers had a "lower education" tended to have not graduated from high school. Kraus's study did not directly track income of families, but most children in the study qualified for free lunch (to be eligible, a family of four must have income of about $29,000 or less).

Researchers found "children from lower-SES (socioeconomic status) backgrounds are exposed to less complex and linguistically rich input in addition to hearing fewer words per hour from their caregivers," according to the study.

The new study shows that in a group of adolescents from inner-city Chicago, the nervous system is different, depending on an individual's mother's level of education– both in the absence of stimulation, and when the brain is stimulated by sound. The same children who showed more "noise" in the nervous system performed worse on standardized tests of memory and reading. Researchers used scalp electrodes to measure the ongoing electrical activity in kids' brains.

Among children of less-educated mothers, study authors found more noise in the absence of sound, compared to those with mothers who had more education.  Additionally, the nervous system's response to sound was less strong and less precise among children of less-educated mothers.

"You have this double whammy, if you will, of having a poorer signal coming through, and heightened background neural activity," Kraus said. "That’s a signal-to-noise disaster."

Kraus and colleagues also found that when children of lower-educated mother hear the same sound repeatedly, nervous system responses tended to vary, whereas those of more highly-educated mothers responded the same way each time.

"If the nervous system responds inconsistently to the same sound, how is a kid to learn what the sound means, because he’s getting this jittered input?" Kraus said.

Researchers saw that the sound waves and brain waves physically resemble each other, so they could see what components of the sounds a child's brain is processing, or not. "The implications are very important once, vis-a-vis education. It just reinforces the idea that education is important, not just for you but for your children," Kraus said.

You might be asking yourself: Is nature or nurture to blame? "It’s difficult to know where the deprivation starts," Kraus said. "The data here point to environmental causes."

Although this study did not measure other lifestyle factors directly, low maternal education is associated with poorer nutrition, less availability of books in the home, less exercise and less encouragement of children do their homework, Kraus said. All of these deficiencies could play a role in the development of a child's nervous system.

Previous research has also indicated that a mother's education matters in terms of a child's auditory development and auditory language enrichment, which is necessary for language skills to develop. A study by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley found that by the time a child from a family on welfare is 3 years old, he or she will have heard 30 million fewer words than if the parents are professionals. By the fourth year, an average child in a professional family would have accumulated experience with almost 45 million words, compared to an average child in a welfare family (13 million words).

Welfare children tend to also hear far more discouraging language than those whose parents are professionals, the research showed. When young children aren't being exposed to a wealth of words, and the language they do hear is more negative than what their peers hear, their development can be noticeably different.

The researchers are interested to see what effect music education has on these children and the others in their study. Their hypothesis is that music will help, especially with strengthening language skills.

"In the same way as getting linguistic stimulation is a form of enrichment, because you are making sound-to-meaning connections all the time, and you are strengthening circuits in the nervous system that are important for language, music also strengthens many of these same circuits," Kraus said.

A second study released this week in JAMA Pediatrics shows poverty also affects the hippocampus and amygdala parts of children's brains.

More on this topic: How poverty might change the brain

soundoff (37 Responses)
  1. Ray

    You have go t to be kidding. The sample in this is so small it's irrelevant. Is CNN running out news worthy stories. I would love to see a similar study that includes recently immigrated families whose social economics are less than those of our "inner city" kids. Why is it that people from Latin American, India, China, etc. with less opportunities in their home country and immigrate to the US extremely poor are take advantage of our education? Historically the children of poor immigrants have been able to take advantage of opportunities that are given to them. If this study is correct, then the children of poor uneducated immigrants who also live in the "inner city" should show similar results. Perhaps Northwestern should do a study that compares the two.

    October 30, 2013 at 07:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • BOB

      Sample size isn't very important when testing two control groups, and this isn't the end of the research. This is a good start, and now other research projects can be created using the results from this one. This is called science. Educate yourself. You'll find the noise is your brain might stop.

      October 30, 2013 at 11:06 | Report abuse |
    • Ray

      TO BOB: Isn't that the beauty of research and statistics? One can look at data and manipulate it any which way to come up with the desired result. Not much science in that!! Northeastern should disclose who is paying for the research. Perhaps then we would understand why such a "small" "inner city" group was used. The only noise here is the babble in this article.

      October 30, 2013 at 12:03 | Report abuse |
    • L

      I'm with you, this is ridiculous.

      October 31, 2013 at 14:27 | Report abuse |
    • L

      Bob – I also agree that statistics can be manipulated, especially learning this after taking statistics in college. Those issues can be from so many other issues – including anxiety due to the environment, abuse and neglect which is also a "statistic" in the "inner cities".

      October 31, 2013 at 14:31 | Report abuse |
    • Nobody you know

      There is nothing "ridiculous" about it, except for people who lack any intelligence or education. L, you really take the cake here. You seem to think there must be some "ulterior motive" for the study's findings, but for the life of you, you can't manage to articulate what they might be. Why is that? Because you don't have any idea what you're babbling about.

      November 4, 2013 at 19:16 | Report abuse |
  2. Ray

    TO BOB: Isn't that the beauty of research and statistics? One can look at data and manipulate it any which way to come up with the desired result. Not much science in that!! Northeastern should disclose who is paying for the research. Perhaps then we would understand why such a "small" "inner city" group was used. The only noise here is the babble in this article.

    October 30, 2013 at 12:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • justcallmedoctoralready

      Its incredible how people do NOT understand how scientific research works. As far as I can tell, the study using 66 children is cross-sectional in design, meaning it is hypothesis-generating at best. You can't make any causal inferences, but you can get a good idea of where to go next....including getting a bigger sample. There is limited $$$ in research, so many many studies in all kinds of branches of science end up with smaller sample sizes than the the researchers want. Also, don't forget that people and have to agree to do this. That also limits sample size. No matter how good a study is, it will always have its limitations. Thats what the discussion section is for....to point out what might have gone wrong, where the bias may be, etc.

      So quit your whining and please understand how research works before you go mouthing off ignorance.

      And For Ryan: Read the above my friend. IT IS research, therefore its not and CANT say anything is 100%. Being such a hoity toity smarty pants, you should understand this.

      October 30, 2013 at 12:46 | Report abuse |
    • Marcie

      I agree with you Ray ! I know families that that are not from a family that have a "professional degree "and they are raised to explore the world and are very well educated. I know professional women and men that do not have the time to spend with their children. They are targeting the mother only... Yes many children are raised by their mother but what they are really saying is that poor "dumb women" are not caring enough to talk to their child so the child is not exposed to as many words etc. Really ! There are so many programs out in the world for all people to be a part of to participate and learn. And really everyone learns differently. The study should be about HOW PEOPLE LEARN. Our system of teaching is so old it does not reach all people. As the study makes reference ""In the same way as getting linguistic stimulation is a form of enrichment, because you are making sound-to-meaning connections all the time, and you are strengthening circuits in the nervous system that are important for language, music also strengthens many of these same circuits," Kraus said. Does that mean that POOR Mothers do not play music either...Yes we all know talking and music develop a person But something bigger than all of this is the Love in the family ! Rich or Poor it is about relationships.

      October 31, 2013 at 03:41 | Report abuse |
    • L

      To "justcallmedoctor..." Sorry, I was specifically taught by a statistics professor that it's not always what it seems. It is especially a problem in the pharmaceutical industry – it's so twisted and some of these studies are done by their own hired researchers so it benefits the outcome they want. It's all about the $ and not necessarily about helping people.

      October 31, 2013 at 14:35 | Report abuse |
    • Nobody you know

      L, do you imagine you're the only person here who took a college class in statistics? You must be very, very young. I don't think you even read the article and if you did, you obviously haven't the slightest idea what it was actually saying about the research at all.

      November 4, 2013 at 11:19 | Report abuse |
  3. Sam

    I really don't understand why this is news. I have read about this in the past so it really isn't anything new..

    October 30, 2013 at 12:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Ryan

    All of this is stupid. According to "research" I should be in jail by now. I was raised by a single mom, my dad is in jail from using and selling meth, we are poor, and live in a bad area. However I graduated in the top 10% of my high school class and am attending Clemson University which is a top 25 public university (although I also got accepted to University of Georgia and Princeton). These "findings" are there just to reate excuses for kids that are lazy and don't want to learn.

    October 30, 2013 at 12:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • PayUPNow

      You made good decisions and stuck to them, despite parents pushing you the wrong way. That puts you in the top 5% or so, as most people do not rise above the moral level they were raised with. People often have better careers than their parents, but less often better character.

      The other 95% of either won't make the choice you did or can't extricate from their background.

      October 30, 2013 at 18:26 | Report abuse |
    • Chinwe

      Right on Ryan.We were poor,my parents had little eduction but my mom was the best example of anything there was.We had a lot of love & laughter.We did well in school just to make her proud

      October 31, 2013 at 05:37 | Report abuse |
    • Sidney

      Actually, Ryan, Clemson is ranked #62 among National Universities by U.S. News and World Report. That means it is not, as you claim, a Top 25 public school.

      And what is "reate", as stated in the last line of your post?

      May 24, 2014 at 06:13 | Report abuse |
  5. Annoyed

    This is the dumbest crap I have ever heard. Really spending money on this research rather than cancer, Alzheimer's etc...
    How about putting money back into the schools idiots!!

    October 30, 2013 at 12:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • davon

      TO ANNOYED. crap! really? for your info research is and has being going on for long on cancer,alzheimer and the others.is like you don't get the point this research is carried out i suppose,to encourage future parents to value education for their kids by being educated themselves.with a highly educated society in the future to carry on more research we might end up with cure of cancer. simple

      October 31, 2013 at 01:10 | Report abuse |
  6. Julie

    I don't think it's a matter of education as much as intellect (though I wouldn't be surprised if those with high intellect tend to have more education). I had only a bachelors degree when I had my son, but I'm now working on my Masters. However, I'm a certified genius, so I think that is really the piece that matters.

    The article reads "Researchers found "children from lower-SES (socioeconomic status) backgrounds are exposed to less complex and linguistically rich input in addition to hearing fewer words per hour from their caregivers," according to the study." So really, it's just a matter of having intelligent conversations with adults (parents or sitters).

    October 30, 2013 at 12:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Hill

    Coming from a family with a so-called low socioeconomic status who according to the study hears far less words or positive interactions I have succeeded thus far in life. Being 25 with a law degree and masters of law, I found that it is not so much the intake of interactions but how you interrupt and use those interactions to transform them into positive results. I come from a very poor background, fatherless family but the will power of mother is the reason why I am here today. I agree it does start at home but to some extent it's a partnership between the education system and the parents. We live in a society where teachers are more focused on their pay checks than the real reason they became teachers. As a teacher you accept the fact that you won't get the recognition required or the wealth but that's you became a teacher to be the spreader of knowledge. I say all that to say I didn't have a mother breathing down my neck to do my homework she taught me survival skills, independence to make up my mind and I fortunately chose to educate myself. I say all that to say this is just one factor that determines the outcome of ones life. People will be who they want to be.

    October 30, 2013 at 13:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Angie

    I am a High School Graduate Mother of two girls, both with an IQ of 132 and College Graduates, with high honors. Can you please explain why your theory missed this time. Thank y6ou very much

    October 30, 2013 at 13:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Nobody you know

      Because that's not what the study is about. Ask one of your girls to read the article to you and explain.

      November 4, 2013 at 11:17 | Report abuse |
  9. Portland tony

    So if you grow up around intellectually smart folks, on the average, you'll do better in our society. Conversely, if you are surrounded by idiots, while growing up, chances are you'll be an idiot too. The challenge to find out why. Is it genetic? Can you dumb down a genius by his or her environment. Or are their other factors at play?

    October 30, 2013 at 13:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Durpee Dur

    Awwww! Such a NICE way of saying "retard". Next convenience store robbery I see, I'll try to keep that in mind, Maybe we should forcibly sterilize people who shouldn't be breeding in the first place.

    October 30, 2013 at 13:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. ManturoQ

    To everyone who succeeded from a low SES: congratulations, you're an outlier. You would have probably succeeded in any environment.

    Statistics are not absolutes. The study suggest that ON AVERAGE children who are from a low SES background will have suffered ill effects from it.

    October 30, 2013 at 17:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. PayUPNow

    Just hang out around a housing project and this will be obvious.

    Years back, there was no additional payment for babies born while Mom was on welfare. Today, Al Harpton and the Aggrieved would knock that down and mix up a lawsuit about it.
    Let's do reverse immigration: those who can and will work can come here from Mexico, those raising generations of welfare/drug families get exported to Mexico.

    October 30, 2013 at 18:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. FDASDFA3452345








    October 30, 2013 at 23:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. C++

    These facts has a big probability.. But I still believed that you could rewire your circuit brain through constant practice and perseverance. I came from a poor family, My parents did not graduated in high school, both of them died at the age of 40s, I was diagnose with dyslexia( some learning difficulty) but I ended up graduated as a Computer Engineer and had a good career as a computer programmer. Not to mention winning couple of Mathematics contest.. And I don't think its an accident.. What I did is trying to focus on my strength and work on my weaknesses...

    October 31, 2013 at 01:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. hameedonline

    What's important here education not the certificates or whatsoever. i can't understand why you people are talking about university degrees. A house wife who havn't attended a university may be well educated with the help of resources available. it's just being educated or not.

    October 31, 2013 at 04:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rev Pam

      Formula-fed babies have fewer synapses in the brain, fewer connections between neurons. In the USA, low-income mothers are less likely to breastfeed. We can support breastfeeding if we think families are more important than Ross Labs and Nestle, but we don't.

      October 31, 2013 at 08:55 | Report abuse |
  16. Sally Chans

    I'm making $86 an hour working from home. I was shocked when my neighbour told me she was averaging $95 but I see how it works now. I feel so much freedom now that I'm my own boss. This is what I do, Cloud200.c*o*m

    October 31, 2013 at 13:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Tendofreak

    So....probably spent millions and are probably asking for more millions in grants to learn:
    Stupid moms have stupid kids.
    Next up:
    Stupid is as stupid does!

    October 31, 2013 at 16:08 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Nobody you know

      And I'm sure you'd make a great test subject, since you have no clue what the research was about.

      November 4, 2013 at 11:14 | Report abuse |
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    November 2, 2013 at 10:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Mitch Vansen

    I just got paid $5628 working off my laptop this month. And if you think that's cool, my divorced friend has twin toddlers and made over $8.1k her first month. It feels so good making so much money when other people have to work for so much less. This is what I do, Best96DotCom

    November 3, 2013 at 11:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Nobody you know

    I think a number of you don't have much skill in reading comprehension. Either that, or you didn't read the article at all. Researchers were trying to see how the adolescent brain reacts to sound. Researchers weren't predicting whether individual children would become successful. Those of you who start yammering about your mothers and how you "beat the odds" are simply incapable of recognizing that your anecdotes aren't research and you have no idea what you're talking about.

    November 4, 2013 at 11:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Amy

    As a speech pathologist working in education for the last 16 years, I can see the true-to-life implications of this research. For starters, though there are various reasons that students experience "static" the practical application and obligation rests with their educators to consider it as real. Teaching students explicitly how to zero in on the most important content is something we have to be willing to do. They need vocabulary exposure and lots of it. They need practice cutting to the most important ideas in a section of discussion or text. They need help to separate the figure from the ground. Another interesting thing for me was that music might enhance these processing abilities for kids. What so many primary grade teachers know about learning to music has validity past capturing the attention of young learners. Perhaps we should be using it with students who are much older. I know first hand how *singing* a sentence with syntax I want a child to focus on can help them model after it. This is a great start at accepting factors that many teachers already know in their gut.

    November 20, 2013 at 10:25 | Report abuse | Reply

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