Giving cash to low-income moms linked to increased brain activity in their babies, study suggests

New research suggests that giving extra money to low-income moms could alter their babies’ brain development.

Brain measurements at age 1 showed faster activity in key brain regions in infants whose low-income families received more than $300 a month for a year, compared with those who received $20 each month, US researchers reported Monday.

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

The researchers are investigating whether the payments led to better nutrition, less stress for the parents or other benefits for the infants. There were no restrictions on how the money was spent.
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The results suggest that reducing poverty could have a direct impact on infant brain development, said senior author Dr. Kimberly Noble, a professor of neuroscience and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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

While the researchers cannot rule out the possibility that the differences in total brain activity in both groups are due to chance, they did find significant differences in the frontal region, which are linked to learning and thinking skills. The higher frequency activity was about 20% greater in infants whose families received the larger payments.

The findings build on evidence that out-of-pocket support can improve outcomes for older children, said study co-author Katherine Magnuson, director of the National Institute for Research on Poverty and Economic Mobility, based at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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

The study recruited mothers to hospitals in four metropolitan areas shortly after giving birth: Minneapolis-St. Paul, New Orleans, New York and Omaha. The women reported a median household income of about $20,000 and were randomly assigned to receive $333 or $20 on debit cards each month. The money was provided by private financiers and the recipients could spend it as they saw fit.

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

The study “couldn’t be more relevant to the present moment,” Dr. Joan Luby, a professor of child psychiatry at the University of Washington Medical School.

While the extension of the tax credit is uncertain, “this study should really inform Congress about how hugely important it is,” Luby said. She reviewed the study for the scientific journal, but was not involved in the study.

Mothers who participated in the study were mostly black and Hispanic with no college education. As the babies approached their first birthday, researchers made home visits to test the children in person. Babies were fitted with special caps covered with electrodes that detect electrical signals that brain cells use to communicate with each other.

Home visits have stopped due to the pandemic, so researchers don’t have complete data on all 1,000 mothers who have enrolled since 2018. They reported the results for 435 but hope to resume home visits this year.

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

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 see if they also apply to children older than infants.

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