Children of Poorly Educated Mothers Have Noisier Neural Networks

I am continually fascinated by how each of us perceives the world individually. What is the world, after all, except how each of us sense and interpret the events and sensory information around us in real-time? What if fast-thinkers or elite athletes actually experience time is a slower scale than most others? What if the most talented musicians actually hear the world in a different way?

And if any of that is true, how are our perceptions formed? Is it all genetic, or does our early environment also play a role?

In a fascinating study back in 1995, researchers revfealed that children in high-income families are exposed to 30 million more words than children from families on welfare. What’s more, they are also exposed to a much higher level and frequency of ambient noise. Think growing up in the projects with broken windows versus a four-story home in a quiet, affluent neighborhood. Whether these be the reasons or not, the study linked a mother’s educational background to her children’s literacy and cognitive abilities.

Now, a new study from Northwestern University has given some credence to these two-decades-old results by peering into the brains of adolescents. The results link poor processing of auditory information in a teenager’s brain to a lower maternal educational background.

Grouped together by their mother’s educational history, participants – most of whom were in 9th grade – watched a subtitled movie of their choice while a series of speech sounds was played into their right ears. Naturally, scientists watched their brain activity through passive electrophysiological recordings while it responded to the onslaught of sensory information.

After 20 minutes, the tests were concluded, and the researchers went home to crunch their numbers.

I’m telling you, if you want a job, major in statistics and work in just about any field you want. That’s where the job security is.

The results showed that teens with less-educated mothers had noisier neural responses to speech sounds than their more affluent peers. There was more excess neural fireworks, their responses were more variable, and their brain activity tracked the input signal more weakly. In other words, their brains were not processing the auditory input as effectively.

“Neural models indicate that when the input to a neuron is noisier, the firing rate becomes more variable, ultimately limiting the amount of sensory information that can be transmitted,” write the authors in the new study.

“If your brain is creating a different signal each time you hear a sound, you might be losing some of the details of the sound,” said Erika Skoe, an assistant professor of speech, language and hearing sciences at the University of Connecticut, and lead author of the study. “Losing these details may create challenges in the classroom and other noisy settings.”

Just another example of how success breeds success, and why it is usually so difficult for those born into poverty to climb their way up the ladder later in life.

The impoverished brain: Disparities in maternal education affect the neural response to sound,” was published in the Journal of Neuroscience. Its authors are Erika Skoe, assistant professor of speech, language and hearing sciences at the University of Connecticut; Jennifer Krizman, a doctoral student in Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory; and Nina Kraus, the Hugh Knowles Professor of Neurobiology, Physiology and Communication Sciences at Northwestern and also the director of the Auditory Neuroscience Lab.


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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