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The neuroscience behind money and power: How socioeconomic status can literally shape your brain

A study from the University of Pennsylvania suggests socioeconomic status can affect gray matter volume—but how you treat it matters, too.

The neuroscience behind money and power: How socioeconomic status can literally shape your brain
[Source photo: Getty]

Money. Power. Fame. Success. All accomplishments in life that we’ve been told can “go to our head”—meaning, in the idiomatic sense, that we grow pompous, callous, and strangely forgetful of the people who cheered us on and the places from which we come.

But such forces can also “go to your head” in a much less figurative way. As in, they can literally mold the shape of your brain.

That’s the finding of a recent publication from the University of Pennsylvania and international collaborators, who studied the neural effects of socioeconomic status. According to the team, which is called BIG BEAR—for Brain Imaging and Genetics in Behavioral Research—such factors as your education, your job, your income, and the neighborhood in which you live can chisel the brain’s architecture across a variety of lobes, structuring its relative gray matter volume.

Using the United Kingdom’s Biobank—a research-based treasure trove of human data, including brain scans and genomic sequencing—the team hunted for patterns and mapped links between socioeconomic status and a roughly 1.6% variation in total brain volume. Digging deeper, they found stronger correlations with specific regions—including, surprisingly, the cerebellum, which masterminds the body’s movement and balance.

“We see correlations popping up all over the brain between socioeconomic status and gray matter volume,” said Gideon Nave, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of Business and a coauthor of the paper. “They’re small, but with the large sample size of our study, we can be confident that they’re real.”

That’s money and power’s footprint on the brain. Although it’s been well documented that socioeconomic status impacts mental and physical health in myriad ways, what’s been hazier, for scientists, are the routes by which it does so. Is the link between status and cognitive function merely a product of encoded genetics? Or could it actually result from the stresses of our environment?

Hoping to shed light on the mechanisms, the team analyzed the biobank’s genomic sequencing data. Their conclusion? Perhaps both nature and nurture matter. Genetics could explain about half the links between socioeconomic status and brain volume—particularly, in the regions that control communication, empathy, and decision-making—but links in other regions, such as the cerebellum, appeared to be more environmentally formed, according to the team. “This suggests that socioeconomic conditions get under the skin in some way,” said Nave.

Unsurprisingly, the effects of poor socioeconomic status were generally negative on the brain. And it’s a complex web of why: For example, the authors wrote that body mass index (BMI)—another meter of health that’s influenced by both nature (metabolism) and nurture (diet and exercise)—could account for 44% of the link between socioeconomic status and brain volume, meaning that if you’re able to improve your BMI, that might positively manifest in your brain structure.

To that point, the authors said their findings suggest health and social disparities stemming from socioeconomic status could hopefully be lessened with policy interventions that improve life for the bottom half.

“If air quality is worse in lower-socioeconomic status neighborhoods, that can be triggering inflammation and other negative effects in the brain,” said Nave. “As just one example, regulations that mitigate air pollution could remove that harm and improve health and well-being across the board, no matter what neighborhood one lives in. Free, high-quality preschool can do the same thing.”

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