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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

June 2021

Neighborhood disadvantage may affect brain development

Enhancing social and educational resources could reduce risk, suggest NIEHS grantees from the University of Southern California.

Certain neighborhoods — particularly those characterized by poverty and unemployment — may pose an environmental risk to the developing brains of children, according to a new study by NIEHS grant recipients from the University of Southern California (USC). Potential effects include declines in neurocognitive performance and even brain size.

Daniel Hackman, Ph.D. Hackman researches the role of neighborhood disadvantage and childhood adversity in psychological and neurobiological development. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Hackman)

The research was published May 3 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

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

First-of-its-kind research

“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,” said lead author Daniel Hackman, Ph.D., assistant professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “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.”

Hackman and his colleagues used data from the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, collected from October 2016 to 2018. The ABCD Study is the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States (see sidebar).

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.

Megan Herting, Ph.D. Herting’s neuroimaging lab at USC examines how air pollution and other environmental factors contribute to child and adolescent brain development. (Photo courtesy of Megan Herting)

Pollution and social stressors

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

In addition, the researchers said, disadvantaged neighborhoods may lack quality health services, access to nutritional foods, and well-maintained parks and recreational facilities. Such communities 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,' said Hackman.

Citation: Hackman DA, Cserbik D, Chen JC, Berhane K, Minaravesh B, McConnell R, Herting MM. 2021. Association of local variation in neighborhood disadvantage in metropolitan areas with youth neurocognition and brain structure. JAMA Pediatr e210426.

(This story is based on a May 4 press release by USC.)

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