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Research may show how poverty shapes the brain Add to ...

Studying "orchid children" could also provide new insight into how poverty shapes the brain.

Preliminary evidence suggests poor children may be more likely to be highly sensitive to their environments, but scientists don't yet know why this may be the case.

A possible answer is epigenetics, or the way the environment - everything from stress to smoking - can affect the activity of genes.

The genetic code itself is not altered by stress, but studies with laboratory animals have shown the activity of some genes can be affected. The result can be either an increase or decrease in the production of stress hormones or various neurotransmitters that play a key role in the brain.

Tom Boyce and his colleagues at the University of British Columbia are running a series of sophisticated tests to assess whether the stress of living in poverty alters the activity of genes involved in brain development and function.

"We are looking at the DNA involved in neuroregulation, the development of the brain, the control of emotion and so on," Dr. Boyce says.

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