Neighborhood status associated with children’s cognitive function

Media Advisor

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

NIH-funded research from the ABCD Study finds the association, regardless of household income.


A study published today in JAMA Network Open Shows that children in poor neighborhoods perform less well on a range of cognitive tasks, such as verbal ability, reading skills, memory, and attention, and have smaller brain volumes in key cognitive areas than people in wealthier neighborhoods.

While several studies have shown that household socioeconomic status affects a child’s cognitive development, less is known about the effect of a broader neighborhood context. By revealing a role that neighborhood environments can play in shaping brain development, research findings may inform interventions aimed at improving outcomes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The study is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and nine other institutions, centers and offices that are part of the National Institutes of Health.

The researchers analyzed data from the Juvenile Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, which focuses on how environmental and biological factors influence adolescent development. The team looked at data from brain imaging and neurocognitive testing from 11,8759- and 10-year-old children (48% female) from 21 sites within the United States, largely reflecting urban and suburban areas.

Researchers found that youth living in high-poverty neighborhoods had lower levels of some brain areas, partially explaining the possible association between higher neighborhood poverty and lower scores on cognitive tests. The affected areas of the brain were in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, the regions involved in language and memory. The difference in volume was significant even after the researchers adjusted for the effects of household income. For each unit increase in neighborhood poverty, children scored 3.22 points lower on the cognitive test, even when accounting for household income.

While other studies have found poor school and cognitive performance among children raised in a poor environment, this study highlights the specific importance of the neighborhood context in a child’s development, regardless of a child’s household income. The study’s findings suggest that policies addressing unequal distribution of resources among neighborhoods may help reduce imbalances in cognitive performance. Additional research is needed to identify which neighborhood characteristics, such as school funding or environmental pollution, may affect children’s brain and cognitive development.

The ABCD study, the largest of its kind in the United States, is tracking approximately 12,000 youth as they grow into young adults. Investigators routinely measure participants’ brain structure and activity using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, and collect psychological, environmental, and cognitive information, as well as biological samples. The study aims to define standards for normal brain and cognitive development and to identify factors that may enhance or disrupt a young person’s life path.

The Juvenile Brain Cognitive Development Study and the ABCD Study are registered trademarks and service marks, respectfully, of the US Department of Health and Human Services.


Taylor, RL, Cooper, SR, Jackson, JJ, Burch, DM. Assessment of Neighborhood Poverty, Cognitive Function and Prefrontal and Hippocampal Volume in Children. insert Hyperlink. JAMA Network Open. 3 November 2020.


Gaya Dowling, PhD, Director, Juvenile Brain Cognitive Development Study, National Institute on Drug Abuse, available for comment.

To learn more, visit: Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study.

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