Neighborhood disadvantage may pose an environmental risk to brain development in children

May 4, 2021

USC study suggests investments that improve social and educational resources could mitigate harm

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A new USC study suggests that certain neighborhoods — particularly those characterized by poverty and unemployment — may pose an environmental risk to the developing brains of children, impacting neurocognitive performance and even brain size.

The research appears this week in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

These findings highlight the importance of neighborhood environments for child and adolescent brain development, the researchers said, and suggest that policies, programs and investments that help improve local neighborhood conditions and empower communities could support children’s neurodevelopment and long-term health.

“This is the first large, national study of neurodevelopment to determine that the role of neighborhood disadvantage is similar across all regions of the country, and we found that what mattered most were the local differences in neighborhood disadvantage within each city, rather than how cities differ from each other overall,” said lead author Daniel Hackman, assistant professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

Researchers from the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and the Keck School of Medicine of USC used data from the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, collected from October 2016 to October 2018. The ABCD Study is the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States.

Neighborhood disadvantage, after accounting for family socioeconomic status and perceptions of neighborhood safety, showed associations with multiple aspects of neurocognition and smaller total cortical surface area, particularly in the frontal, parietal and temporal lobes.

“Our findings aren’t specific to the child’s home life, as we adjusted for socioeconomic factors at each child’s home. But the research suggests neighborhoods may have different levels of social and educational resources and opportunities that can impact a child’s neurodevelopment,” said senior author Megan Herting, assistant professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine.

In addition, the researchers said, disadvantaged neighborhoods may lack quality health services, access to nutritional foods and well-maintained parks and recreation facilities; they may also expose residents to more pollutants or social stressors.

“This research is important, as it not only highlights that neighborhoods matter but it also suggests that promoting neighborhood equity based on the unique local conditions within cities may improve short- and long-term health and development of children and adolescents,” Hackman said.

In addition to Herting and Hackman, other study authors include Dora Cserbik, Jiu-Chiuan Chen and Rob McConnell of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine; Bita Minaravesh of the Spatial Sciences Institute at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences; and Kiros Berhane of the Department of Biostatistics at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

The study was supported with grants from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (P30ES007048-23S1 and P01ES022845), the National Institutes of Health (R01ES031074 and R21HD099596) and the Rose Hills Foundation.


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