Nav: Home

Higher-income students have an edge when it comes to working memory

July 20, 2016

TORONTO, ON - University of Toronto and MIT researchers have discovered important differences between lower and higher-income children in their ability to use "working memory," a key brain function responsible for everything from remembering a phone number to doing math in your head.

Using functional MRI (fMRI) to measure and map the brain activity of a group of middle-schoolers, the researchers - working in collaboration with Harvard University - were able to physically document that the lower-income students tested had less working memory capacity than their higher-income peers.

The results of their study were published in the July 19th edition of the Developmental Science journal.

"It's never been shown before that lower-income children have this qualitatively different brain response for this very basic ability that is essential to almost all cognition," says the study's lead researcher, Amy Finn of U of T's Department of Psychology.

Finn said researchers went a step further and also demonstrated these differences in working memory had an impact on academic measures of achievement - in this case a standards-based math test - collected from the schools of the students who were examined.

The researchers say it is a major step toward understanding the neuroscience of the income-achievement gap, and although by no means a complete explanation, is also significant because it links brain functions to academic test scores.

"We knew that there were differences in the neural structure of children from lower-income versus higher-income families, but we didn't know if that really mattered for solving problems," says Finn.

"Now that we've shown this, we might be doing something which is important along the way to helping lower-income students succeed."

All 67 students tested for the study were enrolled in either the eighth or seventh grades in schools in the Boston area and recruited through advertisements and after-school programs. They were also ethnically diverse, and with a roughly equal number of boys and girls.

In the study, researchers focused on regions of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, which are important for high-level functions.

They observed that the high-income students largely kept this region of the brain in reserve until the tasks began to get more difficult, but the lower-income children relied on it more often and to a greater extent than higher-income children, even for relatively simple problems.

That suggests there is a difference in how lower-income children to tap into their working memory - which is how the brain organizes and holds information in mind that it can't immediately see, says Finn.

Finn says she's concerned people will interpret the data to conclude that these physical differences between the brains of lower-income and higher-income children are somehow hard-wired. Nothing could be further from the truth, she says.

"The brain is a very plastic organ, and all of this can be changed with the right kind of training and better opportunities," says Finn. "Just because we're observing this in the brain, doesn't mean it is set in stone."

Finn says some of the differences had probably never been observed before because of another kind of gap - an inherent bias in the income level of the populations researchers normally test.

Most cognitive neural science is conducted on people who are from middle and upper- middle class backgrounds because it's less expensive to study populations near the university than to reach out to lower-income communities, says Finn.

While the study didn't measure environmental factors, lower-income status is also related to such things as more chronic stress, Finn notes.

"No matter the reason, it doesn't change the fact that their working memory is qualitatively different."
-end-
MEDIA CONTACTS:

Amy Finn
Department of Psychology
University of Toronto
finn@psych.utoronto.ca
1-416-978-3904

Larysa Woloszansky
Media Relations Officer
University of Toronto
larysa.woloszansky@utoronto.ca
1-416-978-6974

Sean Bettam
Communications, Faculty of Arts & Science
University of Toronto
s.bettam@utoronto.ca
1-416-946-7950

University of Toronto

Related Brain Activity Articles:

More brain activity is not always better when it comes to memory and attention
Potential new ways of understanding the cause of cognitive impairments, such as problems with memory and attention, in brain disorders including schizophrenia and Alzheimer's are under the spotlight in a new research review.
Researchers to predict cognitive dissonance according to brain activity
A new study by HSE researchers has uncovered a new brain mechanism that generates cognitive dissonance -- a mental discomfort experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs or values, or experiences difficulties in making decisions.
Brain activity can be used to predict reading success up to 2 years in advance
By measuring brainwaves, it is possible to predict what a child's reading level will be years in advance, according to research from Binghamton University, State University of New York.
There's a close association between magnetic systems and certain states of brain activity
Scientists from the University of Granada (UGR) have proven for the first time that there is a close relationship between several emerging phenomena in magnetic systems (greatly studied by condensed matter physicists) and certain states of brain activity.
Hormone can enhance brain activity associated with love and sex
The hormone kisspeptin can enhance activity in brain regions associated with sexual arousal and romantic love, according to new research.
More Brain Activity News and Brain Activity Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Teaching For Better Humans
More than test scores or good grades — what do kids need to prepare them for the future? This hour, guest host Manoush Zomorodi and TED speakers explore how to help children grow into better humans, in and out of the classroom. Guests include educators Olympia Della Flora and Liz Kleinrock, psychologist Thomas Curran, and writer Jacqueline Woodson.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#534 Bacteria are Coming for Your OJ
What makes breakfast, breakfast? Well, according to every movie and TV show we've ever seen, a big glass of orange juice is basically required. But our morning grapefruit might be in danger. Why? Citrus greening, a bacteria carried by a bug, has infected 90% of the citrus groves in Florida. It's coming for your OJ. We'll talk with University of Maryland plant virologist Anne Simon about ways to stop the citrus killer, and with science writer and journalist Maryn McKenna about why throwing antibiotics at the problem is probably not the solution. Related links: A Review of the Citrus Greening...