Study links brain anatomy, academic achievement, and family income

Study links brain anatomy, academic achievement, and family income
Credit: Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT

Many years of research have shown that for students from lower-income families, standardized test scores and other measures of academic success tend to lag behind those of wealthier students.

A new study led by researchers at MIT and Harvard University offers another dimension to this so-called "achievement gap": After imaging the brains of high- and low-income students, they found that the higher-income students had thicker cortex in areas associated with visual perception and knowledge accumulation. Furthermore, these differences also correlated with one measure of academic achievement—performance on standardized tests.

"Just as you would expect, there's a real cost to not living in a supportive environment. We can see it not only in test scores, in educational attainment, but within the brains of these children," says MIT's John Gabrieli, the Grover M. Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology, professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and one of the study's authors. "To me, it's a call to action. You want to boost the opportunities for those for whom it doesn't come easily in their environment."

This study did not explore possible reasons for these differences in brain anatomy. However, previous studies have shown that lower-income students are more likely to suffer from stress in early childhood, have more limited access to educational resources, and receive less exposure to spoken language early in life. These factors have all been linked to lower academic achievement.

In recent years, the achievement gap in the United States between high- and low-income students has widened, even as gaps along lines of race and ethnicity have narrowed, says Martin West, an associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an author of the new study.

"The gap in student achievement, as measured by test scores between low-income and high-income students, is a pervasive and longstanding phenomenon in American education, and indeed in education systems around the world," he says. "There's a lot of interest among educators and policymakers in trying to understand the sources of those achievement gaps, but even more interest in possible strategies to address them."

Allyson Mackey, a postdoc at MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research, is the lead author of the paper, which appears the journal Psychological Science. Other authors are postdoc Amy Finn; graduate student Julia Leonard; Drew Jacoby-Senghor, a postdoc at Columbia Business School; and Christopher Gabrieli, chair of the nonprofit Transforming Education.

Explaining the gap

The study included 58 students—23 from lower-income families and 35 from higher-income families, all aged 12 or 13. Low-income students were defined as those who qualify for a free or reduced-price school lunch.

The researchers compared students' scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) with brain scans of a region known as the cortex, which is key to functions such as thought, language, sensory perception, and motor command.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), they discovered differences in the thickness of parts of the cortex in the temporal and occipital lobes, whose primary roles are in vision and storing knowledge. Those differences correlated to differences in both test scores and family income. In fact, differences in cortical thickness in these brain regions could explain as much as 44 percent of the income achievement gap found in this study.

Previous studies have also shown brain anatomy differences associated with income, but did not link those differences to academic achievement.

"A number of labs have reported differences in children's brain structures as a function of family income, but this is the first to relate that to variation in academic achievement," says Kimberly Noble, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University who was not part of the research team.

In most other measures of brain anatomy, the researchers found no significant differences. The amount of white matter—the bundles of axons that connect different parts of the brain—did not differ, nor did the overall surface area of the brain cortex.

The researchers point out that the structural differences they did find are not necessarily permanent. "There's so much strong evidence that brains are highly plastic," says Gabrieli, who is also a member of the McGovern Institute. "Our findings don't mean that further educational support, home support, all those things, couldn't make big differences."

In a follow-up study, the researchers hope to learn more about what types of educational programs might help to close the , and if possible, investigate whether these interventions also influence .

"Over the past decade we've been able to identify a growing number of educational interventions that have managed to have notable impacts on students' academic achievement as measured by standardized tests," West says. "What we don't know anything about is the extent to which those interventions—whether it be attending a very high-performing charter school, or being assigned to a particularly effective teacher, or being exposed to a high-quality curricular program—improves by altering some of the differences in brain structure that we've documented, or whether they had those effects by other means."

Explore further

Better breakfast, better grades

More information: Neuroanatomical Correlates of the Income-Achievement Gap, … 97615572233.abstract

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Apr 17, 2015
You want to boost the opportunities for those for whom it doesn't come easily in their environment.

Perhaps you should consider the possibility that being born into a family where attaining 2 or 3 times the median income is considered a dismal failure isn't as easy an environment as you might expect.

Apr 18, 2015
Ever hear the old saying, "The poor have the children, the rich have the money."

For a strong and long lasting civilization shouldn't it be just the opposite?

Apr 18, 2015
@billpress11 - actually, dude, in a world in which there is quite a bit of wealth, don't you think a better solution might be that there should be no such thing as poor people in the first place?

@Doug -- I started reading the Bell Curve years ago. When I got to the page that stroked my ego and told me I have an IQ of at least 120 because I am reading the book, I threw it in the trash.

@Dan -- Poor guy. Try being homeless for a while or put one of your children in an inner city school and see how easy that is compared to being given the opportunity to climb those rungs. I'm going to tell you something, buddy, I have been homeless, and I can clarify for you unequivocally that climbing the rungs is much easier than dealing with the shame and pain of being poor.

With respect to the problem in general, there are, in my mind anyway, clearly two things going on here: lack of proper nutrition and lack of intellectual stimulation. I believe the brain can recover from both of these.

Apr 18, 2015
@Doug. I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. How could throwing away a book because of something really asinine an author did make me a quitter? Seriously? I'm not going to say you have a problem with reading comprehension, but you really should take the time to read and understand what people write; otherwise, you make assumptions that simply are not true. I am very far from a quitter, buddy.

Apr 18, 2015
@Doug - Just for clarification, you said, "The book confirmed what I already knew and surmised ..."

So you agree with the Authors' conclusion that African Americans are inferior to white people and Asians?

Apr 18, 2015

Actually, I grew up poor and would have been homeless for a while in my 20's had I burned through the support of family and friends before I was able to pick myself up and get back on my feet. So no, I don't know what it's like to be truly homeless and alone to the point of sleeping on the street. I also don't know what it's like to be born into the rich family that I described in my post.
But that doesn't stop me from considering what it might be like to be in that situation without clouding my thoughts with envy over their wealth. It often seems to me that the poor are constantly trying to guilt those who are better off into acts of compassion and consideration while refusing to reciprocate with anything but disdain.
My point is that if you have that sense of family that might protect you from homelessness, you will strive to meet their expectations until you succeed. It is much easier to say that you would climb those rungs when you can claim they are out of reach

Apr 18, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Apr 20, 2015
First, @Saul ... not cool. Not sure what purpose that serves but you certainly should not be putting anyone's personal information out there, especially if it isn't yours. Really, really uncool.

@dan - how in the world did you conclude that I am envious of other people's wealth? Why should I be? I make plenty of money. But I have also been in a really bad spot, and I will not forget how it felt and what it took to get out of that spot. You know what assumptions do to people, right?

@Doug - What can I say? You are exactly the idiot I thought you were. Oh, and you are a bigot, too. I know plenty of minorities who would eat you up and spit you out intellectually and financially. Let me know when you can read, buddy. I'll point you to a dictionary, and you can look the word loser up. You'll be happy to find your name right there next to it!

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