How Socioeconomic Status May Be Related to Fetal Brain Development

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Key Takeaways

  • Socioeconomic status is linked to differences in fetal brain development
  • All pregnant people have the power to influence outcomes
  • Brain development doesn’t stop at birth, it’s never too late to implement lifestyle changes

Socioeconomic status (SES) is defined as a complex combination of household income, education level, occupation status, and available resources. It’s shown to impact physical health, mental health, education attainment, and employment.

Researchers know that developmental brain differences can exist in children depending on their parent’s socioeconomic status, but it was not known when these brain differences first occurred. New research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has now shown that socioeconomic status is associated with differences in the development of the human brain as early as in the womb.

It is important that all moms understand that although SES is shown to be associated with fetal brain development, there are more specific influences that pregnant people and their care providers can address to improve outcomes.

Dr Catherine Limperopoulos, PhD.

Expectant moms can begin to think about the power they have to make changes in their lives.

— Dr Catherine Limperopoulos, PhD.

Study co-author and Chief & Director at the Developing Brain Institute, Dr Catherine Limperopoulos explains, “Pregnant mothers should feel comfortable having conversations with their care providers to work as a team to identify effective interventions. And, outside of the clinic, expectant moms can begin to think about the power they have to make changes in their lives.”

What the Study Showed

The study reviewed MRI images of 144 pregnant women from two hospitals in the United States. Images of the fetal brain revealed that offspring from those with higher SES had greater volumes of white matter in multiple brain regions than those with lower SES. While those with lower SES had increased levels of gyrification (folds on the brain's surface) in some brain regions than high SES fetuses.

There were also differences in other brain structures including deep gray matter, cortical gray matter, the cerebellum, and the brainstem, but these changes were not as widespread as the differences in white matter and gyrification.

It’s important to note that SES in this study was assessed only as occupation status and education level. Household income was not taken into account. Maternal stress, anxiety, and depression levels were monitored as these conditions are known to also impact the developing fetus.

Limperopoulos helps to break down what these findings actually mean.

Increased White Matter

White matter in the brain is a network of nerve fibers (for sending messages between cells) surrounded by a myelin sheath (that helps the brain send and receive messages faster and with greater accuracy).

“Whether your baby is taking his or her first wobbly steps or walking with confidence, you can thank white matter, which helps to ensure coordinated movement.” Explains Limperopoulos, “White matter impairments may result in motor incoordination and imbalance, and difficulties in paying attention and learning for children.”

Increased Gyrification

As the fetal brain grows rapidly in late pregnancy, the surface of the brain folds and increases in texture to accommodate this growth. This is the process of gyrification.

“This gyrification process follows a well-orchestrated and precise timetable of events. But it’s a delicate balance.” Says Limperopoulos. “Delayed or accelerated gyrification has been associated with developmental disabilities and neuropsychiatric disorders, including autism and schizophrenia.”

The study found an accelerated rate of gyrification in lower SES participants which authors suggest may be related to parental stress levels.

“These findings suggest that parental psychological distress in the setting of lower SES may contribute to an overly complex cerebral cortical folding process, and this vulnerability may begin during pregnancy.”

What Causes These Differences?

What actually causes the altered brain development is not yet fully known. But researchers suspect some key factors play a role including parental stress levels, nutrition, genetic influence, and prenatal care.

“One potential factor which may cause the difference is maternal psychological distress, including anxiety, stress, and depression.” Explains Limperopoulos, “Studies have shown that lower SES families experience higher levels of parental distress, resulting in negative life experiences. These stressful life events are significant mediators between income-to-need ratio and childhood brain development.”

The quality of nutrition plays a significant role in fetal brain development. Lower SES families often have more difficulty obtaining nutritious foods due to financial constraints. As such, there is a possibility that the altered brain development between SES levels may also be related in part to nutritional status.

What Can You Do To Help Your Baby’s Neurodevelopment?

Remember that this prenatal research is the first of its kind. Therefore, it’s too early to know any long-term implications. Despite this, Limpoeropoulos reminds parents of the importance of attending prenatal appointments and working as a team with your healthcare provider to identify all the areas you may need help with, including mental wellness.

“When pregnant women visit their care providers, much of the attention is paid to the developing fetus and the expectant mother’s physical health,” says Limperopoulos. “Our findings underscore the importance of clinicians also focusing on parents holistically, including their psychological well-being and potential external stressors they face. This can benefit the future mother as well as benefiting the developing fetal brain.”

Your medical team can refer you to a network of free and low-cost services to support both your physical and mental health during pregnancy.

If you are at the end of your pregnancy, or your child is already born, you can still positively influence the neurodevelopment of your child.

Dr Robert Saul, author and retired pediatrician, reminds parents of all SES that brain development is an ongoing process and the environment around your child will continue to shape their brain.

Dr Robert Saul, MD

The science of early brain and child development tells us that a good bit of early brain architecture and wiring will respond to positive environmental stimuli.

— Dr Robert Saul, MD

“The science of early brain and child development tells us that a good bit of early brain architecture and wiring will respond to positive environmental stimuli (and that less than positive stimuli might impede some of that development),” says Saul.

In agreement with study authors, Saul reminds parents that if you have the opportunity, efforts in the prenatal period are encouraged to improve the outcomes for your baby. Either way, he provides some tips that can be implemented both prenatally and postnatally to enhance your baby's brain development:

  • Aim for optimal nutrition during pregnancy and beyond. If you struggle to access healthy food due to financial difficulties, WIC can offer access to healthy food for pregnant and postnatal families.
  • Regular physical activity.
  • Avoid alcohol and smoking, including second-hand smoke.
  • If you don’t already, start reading, attending the library, and engaging in educational opportunities that can be continued after your baby is born. Most libraries have baby, toddler, and children’s programs that you can continue to attend postnatally. There are also many free online courses in a variety of interest areas. Learning has been attributed to increased white matter in the brain.
  • Avoid excessive screen time.
  • Use the support of family and friends where possible.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about available and affordable resources that support your mental health and stress levels.
5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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