James Swain, from University of Michigan, is part of a new generation of neuroscientists investigating how poverty shapes the brain.
He knows that the work has the potential to be controversial, but he hopes it will eventually lead to new teaching methods or early childhood interventions that would help children from low socioeconomic status (SES) families succeed at school and in life.
"That would be the dream, to inform social policy," the Globe and Mail quoted Swain as saying.
He and other neuroscientists are building on preliminary evidence that suggests the chronic stress of living in an impoverished household, among other factors, can have an impact on the developing brain.
Studies suggest that a number of areas of the brain may be affected by low socioeconomic status, including the circuitry involved in language, memory and in executive functions, a set of skills that help us focus on a problem and solve it.
But Amedeo D'Angiulli at Carleton University in Ottawa wants to steer his fellow researchers away from the idea that they should be looking for poverty-related deficits.
He will urge them to think about any differences they find as potential strengths, not weaknesses.
"I would see this work informing the school system, to exploit some of the strengths that are in these children and introduce curriculum that instead of penalizing them would allow them to function," he said.
He found that children from low SES families tend to use far more parts of their brain during the test than kids from middle-income families.
It was as if the low SES children paid equal attention to every sound they heard, he saod.
Children from high-income homes only paid close attention to the two tones they had been asked to identify.
He stressed that the differences were in how they did the task, not how well they performed. All the children had similar reaction times and accuracy rates.
Swain will be looking at many different parts of the brain and the connections between regions.
His volunteers are 52 young adults that one of his colleagues, Gary Evans at Cornell University, has been tracking since they were in their mothers' wombs. Half of them grew up in poverty, the other half in working or middle-class homes.
Starting as early as next month, Dr. Swain will begin two days of brain imaging and tests for each volunteer.
He will assess their language skills and memory and study how their brains react to pictures of scary faces, and whether that reaction changes when they are stressed.
He will stress them by asking them to do mental arithmetic in front of strangers.
He already has a detailed life history of each volunteer, which will make it possible to look for brain features associated with resilience.
Some people, after all, emerge relatively unscathed from difficult childhoods.
Swain wants to see if there is something different about their brains. (ANI)