Giving Cash to Low-Income Mothers Linked to Increased Brain Activity in Their Babies, Study Suggests

New research suggests giving extra cash to low-income mothers can change their infants’ brain development.

U.S. researchers Monday reported that brain measurements taken at the age of 1 revealed faster activity in certain key brain areas in infants from families with low income who received $300 or more per month for one year. This was in contrast to those who only got $20 per month.

The same type of brain activity has been linked in older children to learning skills and other development, although it’s unclear whether the differences found will persist or influence the infants’ future.

Researchers are currently investigating whether payments resulted in better nutrition, reduced stress for parents or other benefits for the infants. It was not restricted in how the money could have been spent.
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Senior author Dr. Kimberly Noble at Teachers College in Columbia University, who is a professor of neuroscience and education, stated that the findings suggest that poverty reduction can directly influence infant brain development.

“The brain changes speak to the remarkable malleability of the brain, especially early in childhood,” she said.

While the researchers can’t rule out that differences seen in total brain activity in both groups were due to chance, they did find meaningful differences in the frontal region, linked with learning and thinking skills. Infants who received larger amounts of money had higher frequency activity, which was approximately 20% more.

According to Katherine Magnuson from the National Institute for Research on Poverty and Economic Mobility based in Madison, the findings support the idea that cash support can help improve the outcomes for older kids.

It’s also the first rigorous evidence of how the payments may affect children in the earliest years of life, she said. These results were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Mothers were recruited shortly after giving birth at four hospitals: New Orleans (Minneapolis-St. Paul), New York City (New York City), Omaha and New Orleans. These women had an income average of approximately $20,000 per year and received either $333, $20 or $20 monthly in debit cards. Private funders provided the money and recipients were free to spend it however they pleased.

The larger cash payments in the study were similar to those distributed to low-income families during the pandemic in President Joe Biden’s child tax credit program, which ended last month.

The study “couldn’t be more relevant to the current moment,’’ Dr. Joan Luby, a professor of child psychiatry at Washington University’s medical school.

While renewal of the tax credit is uncertain, “this study should really inform Congress about how tremendously important’’ it is, said Luby. While she reviewed the article for Scientific Journal, she wasn’t involved in its research.

The majority of mothers enrolled in this study were Hispanic and Black without having received a college degree. The researchers visited the homes of the infants to conduct a physical examination. Special caps were made for infants with electrodes. These special caps detect electrical signals that brain cells send to each other.

Home visits stopped because of the pandemic, so researchers don’t have full data on all 1,000 mothers who enrolled since 2018. They have reported results on 435, and hope to resume home visits next year.

The study is ongoing and payments to families will continue until at least their children’s fourth birthdays.

Natasha Pilkauskas, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, called it “a very important study,’’ but said more research is needed to confirm the results and to see if they hold true for children older than infants.


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