Income inequality - 624x276

The wage gap between the rich and the poor and family income impact the brain development of female youth

Dr. Tomas Paus

Dr. Tomáš Paus, RRI senior scientist and the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Chair and Professor of Population Neuroscience at the University of Toronto

Female teenagers living in neighbourhoods with wide salary gaps and a low-income household show changes to their brain maturation that could indicate a higher risk of developing mental illness in adulthood, suggests a recently published study by Canadian researchers.

The research, led by Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI), found that female adolescents in these living situations showed a greater thinning in the brain’s cortical thickness (a measurement of the brain’s maturation), which may reflect higher exposure to stress. These findings, which were recently published in the Nature journal, Scientific Reports, could help predict the risk of youth developing a mental illness and contributes to a growing body of evidence that living in poverty disturbs brain development.

“Our research illustrates how the social environment can influence brain development and why tackling public issues, such as income inequality, should be a priority,” says Dr. Tomáš Paus, RRI senior scientist and the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Chair and Professor of Population Neuroscience at the University of Toronto. “Wealth disparity and low family income may generate additional social stress on kids and this extra pressure could be changing the way their brain structure evolves.”

Previous studies have demonstrated links between wage gaps and a person’s physical and mental health, but this is the first study to explore its relationship with brain development.

“During adolescence, the brain is vulnerable to developing psychiatric disorders as it undergoes changes related to puberty, the social environment and academic demands,” says Dr. Paus, who is also a psychology and psychiatry professor at the University of Toronto. “The brain may be particularly sensitive to the influence of income inequality at this time.”

The research analyzed data from 804 adolescents (between the ages of 12 to 18) a part of the Saguenay Youth Study, a multi-generational survey measuring a variety of health indicators among parents and their children. Teenagers were split into different groups based on their sex, household income and income inequality in their neighbourhoods, which was made available through the Canadian Census. Software was used to analyze cortical thickness and compare it with the expression of stress and sex-hormone genes.

Researchers will continue to explore whether this relationship exists in countries known to have high and low gaps in wealth distribution, such as Brazil and Finland. Thanks to recent funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the team will also follow up with youth from the Saguenay study after ten years to see if they went on to develop mental illnesses.

This work was conducted with support from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Quebec and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.

With additional funding, researchers could explore other external risks that lead to mental illnesses that could contribute to the creation of evidence-based, preventive interventions for those who are more likely to develop these conditions. Donate online or call the donations line at 416-785-2875 to support our scientists’ research. 

About Baycrest Health Sciences
Baycrest Health Sciences is a global leader in geriatric residential living, healthcare, research, innovation and education, with a special focus on brain health and aging. Fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, Baycrest provides excellent care for older adults combined with an extensive clinical training program for the next generation of healthcare professionals and one of the world’s top research institutes in cognitive neuroscience, the Rotman Research Institute. Baycrest is home to the federally and provincially-funded Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation, a solution accelerator focused on driving innovation in the aging and brain health sector, and is the developer of Cogniciti – a free online memory assessment for Canadians 40+ who are concerned about their memory.  Founded in 1918 as the Jewish Home for Aged, Baycrest continues to embrace the long-standing tradition of all great Jewish healthcare institutions to improve the well-being of people in their local communities and around the globe. For more information please visit: www.baycrest.org

About Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute
The Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences is a premier international centre for the study of human brain function. Through generous support from private donors and funding agencies, the institute is helping to illuminate the causes of cognitive decline in seniors, identify promising approaches to treatment, and lifestyle practices that will protect brain health longer in the lifespan.

For media inquiries:
Jonathan MacIndoe
Baycrest Health Sciences
416-785-2500 ext. 6579
jmacindoe@baycrest.org