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Study Finds Cash Support to Moms Boosts Babies’ Brain Development

Team Including UMD Researchers Provided No-Strings-Attached Stipends to Low-Income Families

By Maryland Today Staff

mother reading to baby

Cash payments to low-income mothers had a direct impact on infants’ brain development, a multi-institutional team that includes a University of Maryland education researcher has found.

After a year of monthly financial support, the babies were more likely to show brain activity patterns associated in previous research with the development of thinking and learning, according to a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that has wide-ranging policy implications.

The lead author was Sonya Troller-Renfree Ph.D. ’18, a postdoctoral fellow at Teachers College at Columbia University and former student of another co-author, UMD Distinguished University Professor Nathan Fox.

This study measured brain activity among a sample of 435 1-year-old children who were participating in a landmark randomized controlled trial known as “Baby’s First Years,” a collaboration between researchers at UMD; Teachers College; the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the University of California, Irvine; Duke University and New York University.

“We have known for many years that growing up in poverty puts children at risk for lower school achievement, reduced earnings, and poorer health”—but not whether poverty directly causes those deficits or is associated with other factors that do, said senior author Kimberly Noble, professor of neuroscience and education at Teachers College.

To find out, the researchers recruited 1,000 mothers with low incomes from postpartum wards in a dozen hospitals in New Orleans, New York City, Omaha and Minneapolis/St. Paul. Shortly after they gave birth, participating mothers were randomized to receive a monthly cash gift of either $333 or $20. The gifts were disbursed on debit cards, and the mothers, most of whom were Black or Latina, were free to spend the money as they wished, with no strings attached.

Troller-Renfree worked with Fox to measure brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG), a technique in which a cap is placed on an infant’s head and used to record the brain’s electrical activity (known colloquially as “brainwaves”). Past research has linked high-frequency–that is, fast–brain activity to the development of thinking and learning.

“We found that infants whose mothers received the $333/month high-cash gift displayed great alpha, beta and gamma power in the EEG relative to those who received the low-cash gift,” Fox said. “These frequencies in previous studies of infants have been associated with positive language and cognitive outcomes.”

The findings are the first out of the Baby’s First Years project, which studies the impact of poverty reduction on family life and infant and toddlers’ cognitive, emotional and brain development.

Noble, the lead neuroscientist on the project, said that children’s brains naturally adapt to their experiences. “All healthy brains are shaped by their environments and experiences, and we are not saying that one group has ‘better’ brains. But, because of the randomized design, we know that the $333 per month must have changed children’s experiences or environments and that their brains adapted to those changed circumstances.”

The authors noted that they don’t yet know whether these differences will persist over time, or whether they will lead to differences in children’s cognitive or behavioral development, which will be measured in future waves of the study. Likewise, the authors do not yet know which particular experiences were involved in generating the impacts on brain development. Work is under way to examine potential mechanisms, including how mothers spent the money, and how having more money may have changed parenting behaviors, family relationships and family stress.

The mothers will continue to receive the cash gifts, funded by charitable foundations, until their children are 4 years and 4 months old.

"We hear from the mothers in our study how challenging it is to raise children without enough money,” said co-author Katherine Magnuson, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Magnuson. "A few hundred dollars a month has the potential to do a lot of good for these families, and we are grateful that we will continue to learn from them about how the money has helped them meet their goals."

This article was based on a news release from Teachers College, Columbia University.

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