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Understanding Poverty’s Impact on the Developing Brain

Image by David Nevala


The chronic stress of childhood poverty is connected to lifelong effects on social, behavioral and cognitive development – factors that contribute to academic achievement gaps and mental health challenges later in life. This study will provide critical information about how the early environment affects the developing brain and whether specific experiences in the home, like language interactions, caregiver behavior and child sleep routines, could be targets for early intervention. The ultimate goal is to improve children’s chances for long-term well-being. 

Study Details

Chronic stress for children growing up in poverty may lead to lasting effects on social, behavioral, cognitive and academic development.

This study, supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Development, examines the link between poverty and executive functions known to undergo rapid developmental change during the first years of life, including cognitive processes that facilitate learning, self-monitoring and decision making.

Our team at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will examine early neurological development in roughly 230 kids from birth to age 3. We will also investigate critical experiences of the home environment, including language exposure, caregiver behavior, and child sleep hygiene that may mediate the effect of this risk on child structural and functional brain development.

Kids in the study will partake in five visits during the first 3 years that includes neuroimaging at two weeks and 15 and 24 months of age. We will focus on developing white matter tracts that support cognitive processes of emerging executive functions: anterior cingulum (error monitoring); uncinate (joint attention); arcuate fasciculus (language processing) and individual differences in functional brain development, including resting state networks of salience, attention, executive control and default-mode. At 6 and 24 months of age, we will conduct an intensive home visit with observational and objective measures of caregiver behavior, language exposure (via speech recorders) and sleep hygiene. We will assess child cognitive development throughout the study and the emergence of executive functioning at 3 years of age.

This research is the first to investigate the influence of poverty on emerging executive functioning and infant neurological development over the first two years of life.

People Working on This Study

Sarah Short
Sarah J. Short
Core Faculty at the Center for Healthy Minds, Dorothy Jones King Distinguished Chair in Educational Psychology, Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology
Pema Lhamo
Pema Lhamo
Graduate Student, Department of Educational Psychology and the Center for Healthy Minds
Camille Y. Williams
Pre-doctoral Trainee Department of Counseling Psychology and the Center for Healthy Minds
Tammi Kral
Former Postdoctoral Research Associate, Center for Healthy Minds
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