IMPORTANCE Childhood poverty has been associated with increased internalizing and externalizing problems in adolescence, a period of peak onset for psychiatric problems. The underlying neural mechanisms remain unclear because longitudinal studies of poverty, brain structure, and changes in psychiatric symptoms are lacking.
OBJECTIVE To examine whether structural differences in cortical regions mediate the association between household poverty and change in psychiatric symptoms in early adolescence.
DESIGN, SETTING, AND PARTICIPANTS This longitudinal cohort study used baseline and 1-year follow-up data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study. Children aged 9 to 10 years in the US were enrolled between September 1, 2016, and October 15, 2018. Data analysis was performed from August 13, 2021, to September 30, 2022.
EXPOSURES Household poverty as measured by income-to-needs ratio, which incorporates family income and adjusts for family size as a percentage of the federal poverty level.
MAIN OUTCOMES AND MEASURES Mediators were children’s cortical surface area, thickness, and
volume, obtained usingmagnetic resonance imaging. Internalizing and externalizing problems at
1-year follow-up were outcomes measured by maternal report using the Child Behavior Checklist. Analyses were adjusted for baseline psychiatric problems and sociodemographic variables, including sex, race and ethnicity, parental educational level, and study site.
RESULTS Of the 7569 children (mean [SD] age, 9.91 [0.62] years; 3970 boys [52.5%]) included in the analysis, 1042 children (13.8%) lived below the poverty threshold between 2016 and 2018. Poverty was associated with increased externalizing symptoms score at 1-year follow-up (b = 1.57; 95%CI, 1.14-1.99), even after adjustment for baseline externalizing symptoms (b = 0.35; 95%CI, 0.06-0.64). The longitudinal associations of poverty with increases in externalizing problems over time were mediated by reductions in surface area in multiple cortical regions that support executive functioning (middle frontal gyrus), decision-making (lateral orbitofrontal cortex), visual processing (fusiform gyrus), auditory processing (transverse temporal gyrus), and emotion and language processing (superior temporal gyrus).
CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE The findings of this study suggest that childhood poverty is associated with increases in externalizing problems, but not internalizing problems, over time in early adolescence. This association is mediated by reductions in cortical surface area across numerous brain regions. These findings highlight potential neurobiological mechanisms underlying the link between poverty and the emergence of externalizing problems during early adolescence.