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How poverty influences a child's brain development Add to ...

To find epigenetic changes, they will compare their subjects’ genetic profiles at ages 8 to 10 with DNA from blood spots banked when they were newborns. These changes can be correlated with cognitive perform- ance and environmental stress.

“The whole idea behind pursuing these epigenetic markers is to develop better indicators of how a child is doing before problems become salient,” Dr. Boyce says.

Amedeo D’Angiulli, a developmental cognitive neuroscientist at Carleton University in Ottawa, welcomes the new tools that enable direct eavesdropping on the brain-gene dialogue.

He is also keen to test measures that may aid children with attention and focus issues, and counterbalance some of the effects of growing up on the low end of the socio-economic spectrum.

In one study, being conducted with the Leading Note Foundation, which teaches music to children in underserved communities, Dr. D’Angiulli will track cognitive function and stress levels as youngsters embark on an intense period of musical training and performance.

He suspects the program can bolster the brain. Children’s “short-term memory improves, their focus improves, and it’s reinforced because they’re doing it as an ensemble,” he says.

Ultimately, the research points to what many early childhood education advocates have long maintained: Directing resources toward the social and cognitive health of young minds can help to counter the long-term costs of economic disparity.

“All of the new insights we’re getting into how the interactions of genes and environment drive development reinforce the importance of a society that helps families,” says Dr. Hertzman, who points to data showing a link between a population’s mental health and its economic output.

“If we were to invest according to what the biology of brain development is telling us, there would be a lot more investment in children early on.”

Editor's note: A study of the cognitive performance of children in Kamloops, B.C., mentioned in a story on Saturday, was led by Dr. Amedeo D’Angiulli, who was then Canada Research Chair in early childhood education and development at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops. Unclear information about the study appeared in an earlier version of this article. This online version has been corrected.


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