Genetic and environmental factors contribute to the impact of socioeconomic status on the brain

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A study in Scientists progress revealed correlations between socioeconomics, genetics, environmental factors and brain structure. Socioeconomic status is generally defined by characteristics such as an individual’s income, education and occupation, and is linked to quality of life and physical and mental health.

The results provide insight into how socioeconomic, environmental and genetic factors interact to influence the development and structure of the human brain. The operation was funded by a grant from the US National Science Foundation.

An international team, including researchers from Penn State, analyzed a huge trove of data from UK Biobank which contained the brain scans, genome sequences and socioeconomic information of nearly 24,000 participants.

The researchers found that nature and nurture played key roles in brain structure and development and that only about half of the anatomical characteristics measured in the brain could be attributed to genetic factors. Socio-economic factors also play an important role.

“What we’ve seen is that part of the relationship between the brain and socioeconomic status could be explained by genetics, but there’s a lot more to this relationship that remains even after taking into account genetics,” said study co-author Gideon Nave. “This suggests that socioeconomic conditions somehow get under the skin and may have additional negative influences on the social and economic disparities we see around us.”

The study also revealed differential impacts of socioeconomic status and environmental factors that span various brain regions. Socioeconomic status can affect physical and mental health, cognitive ability, academic achievement, and brain development and structure. Better understanding how environmental and genetic factors influence the effects of socioeconomic status on the human brain could lead to earlier and improved mitigation efforts.

“We know that environmental conditions such as air and water quality can have huge impacts on brain development and size,” said Jonathan Fritz, NSF Cognitive Neuroscience Program Director. . “This research takes an important step forward by analyzing large data sets and using powerful statistical tools to reveal more clearly than ever the impact of socioeconomic status and environmental quality on the brain, which which can have profound effects on human cognition.”

The team noted that more studies on the topic are needed to move from correlation to causation in interpreting how the interplay of factors such as environment, genetics and socioeconomic status shapes the structure and development of the brain.


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