Study Suggests Ties Between Socioeconomic Status and Adult Brain

Editors’ Note: This feature appears as it was published in the winter 2019 edition of UT Dallas Magazine. Titles or faculty members listed may have changed since that time.
Dr. Gagan Wig
Research has shown that a developing child’s brain structure and function can be adversely affected when the child is raised in an environment lacking adequate education, nutrition and access to health care.
While the impact of such an environment on children is relatively well understood, a study from the Center for Vital Longevity (CVL) examines an effect that is not so clear — the relationship of socioeconomic status (SES) to brain function and anatomy in adults.
The study, led by CVL researchers and published in the May 29, 2018, issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the adult brain may actually be sensitive to social and economic factors.
“We know that socioeconomic status influences the structure of the brain in childhood and older age, but there’s been a gap in the research. We wanted to see if there were relationships between SES and the brain across a wider range of adulthood,” said Dr. Gagan Wig, assistant professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences and corresponding author of the study.
The SES of each of the study’s 304 participants was approximated using standard methods that combine education and a measure of occupational prestige. The SES measure also was correlated with individual income and reports of subjective SES standing.
To measure brain function, the researchers used functional MRI to collect a type of brain scan that shows how an individual’s functional brain networks are organized. In addition, the researchers used anatomical brain scans to measure the thickness of cortical gray matter in each individual’s brain.
In middle-aged adults, ages 35 to 64 years, a higher socioeconomic status was associated with more efficiently organized brain networks and thicker cortical gray matter. Those who ranked lower in SES tended to have less well-organized functional brain networks and a thinner cortex. A thinner cortex can contribute to cognitive impairment later in life, such as memory loss and dementia.
“We know less about the impact of brain network organization on later life outcomes, but these results suggest that it is worth further study,” Wig said.
The relationship between SES and the brain measures was diminished in the elderly. The scientists suggest that this may be due to the fact that older age can be associated with greater brain changes that obscure any SES relationships.
“These data provide a snapshot in time for each participant,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Micaela Chan MS’12, PhD’16, a postdoctoral researcher in the CVL. “Following individuals through their life spans would provide more information about brain changes and their relationship to life events and status.”
Participants were recruited from the Dallas-Fort Worth community through the Dallas Lifespan Brain Study, a brain-aging study started and led by Dr. Denise Park, CVL director of research, UT Regents’ Research Scholar, Distinguished University Chair in Behavioral and Brain Sciences and a contributing author of the study. The work was supported by the National Institute on Aging and the James S. McDonnell Foundation.
Dr. Micaela Chan MS’12, PhD’16