IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY Kids born to poverty often quickly fall behind wealthier peers cognitively, Noble says — but with the brain’s “plasticity,” change is possible.

“I want to share an idea with you,” Kimberly Noble tells a rapt audience in her new TED Talk. “What if we tried to help young children in poverty by simply giving their families more money?”

Noble, Associate Professor of Neuroscience & Education at Teachers College, is by no means the first person to suggest income supplements as social policy. But she comes at the issue from a unique vantage point, and may soon be in a position to speak with unparalleled authority.

Four years ago, Noble, who heads TC’s Neurocognition, Early Experience & Development (NEED) Lab, made international news with a study that found that in children ages three and older, higher parental education and family income were associated with larger surface area of numerous brain regions, including those implicated in language and executive functions. 

Does income level actually have a causative effect on brain development? In May of 2018, Noble and colleagues at the University of California-Irvine, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and New York University set out to test that notion, launching “Baby’s First Years,” an multi-year study in which 1,000 low-income mothers, randomly selected following the arrival of their newborns in maternity wards in four U.S. cities, are given either a monthly debit card gift of $333 or a $20 monthly debit card gift. The researchers will comprehensively test the children’s cognitive and brain development when the children reach 36 months.

Differences in children’s brain structure don’t [have to] doom a child to a lifetime of low achievement. The brain is not destiny.

—Kimberly Noble

In her earlier study, “dollar for dollar, relatively small difference in family income were associated with proportionately greater differences in brain structure among the most disadvantaged families,” Noble says in her TED Talk. “And intuitively that makes sense, right? An extra $20,000 for a family earning, say $150,000 a year would certainly be nice, but probably not game changing. Whereas an extra $20,000 for a family only earning $20,000 would likely make a remarkable difference in their daily lives.”

And, her hypothesis goes, in their children’s brains. In her TED Talk, Noble poses two hypothetical newborns, one born to poverty, the other to more fortunate circumstances. At birth, there is “absolutely no difference in how their brains work.” But by the time they are ready to enter kindergarten, the child living in poverty will have cognitive scores, that according to national averages, will be 60 percent lower. In high school, that same child will be five times more likely to drop out; and as a young adult, significantly less likely to earn a college degree.

“By the time these two kids are 35 years old, if the first child spent her entire childhood living in poverty, she is up to 75 times more likely to be poor herself,” Noble says.

But, she adds, “it doesn’t have to be that way.”

“As a neuroscientist, one of the things I find most exciting about the human brain is that our experiences change our brains,” she says. “This concept, known as neuroplasticity, means that these differences in children’s brain structure don’t doom a child to a lifetime of low achievement. The brain is not destiny.”

I would argue school is important, but if we’re focusing all of our policy efforts on formal schooling, we’re probably starting too late.

—Kimberly Noble

Interventions to change experience (and thus brain structure) can – and should – be made at many points in young people’s lives. High-quality, science-based education is certainly one important venue for doing so – “but as any intervention scientist doing this work would tell you,” education practices of this kind are often labor-intensive and costly. “So I would argue school is important, but if we’re focusing all of our policy efforts on formal schooling, we’re probably starting too late.”

Another promising area of intervention is to promote more language use and more conversation in the home – but that, too, can be labor intensive, and “it can be somewhat patronizing for scientists to swoop in and tell a family what they need to change in order for their child to succeed.”

It will be several years before there are definitive results from “Baby’s First Years.”  If nothing else, Noble says, “a thousand newborns and their moms will have a bit more cash each month that they tell us they very much need.”

But if the study’s hypothesis proves correct, Noble’s hope is that the results “will inform debate about social services that have the potential to affect millions of families with young children.

“Because while income may not be the only or even the most important factor in determining children’s brain development, it may be the one that, from a policy perspective, can be easily addressed,” Noble says. “Put simply: if we can show that reducing poverty changes how children‘s brains develop and that leads to meaningful policy change, then a young child born into poverty today might have a much better shot at a brighter future.”