A University of Georgia research team has shown for the first time that participation in a prevention program known as the Strong African American Families Program, which enhances supportive parenting and strengthens family relationships, removes the effects of poverty on brain development.
In a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, Gene H. Brody, the study’s lead author and co-director of the UGA Center for Family Research, and his colleagues used MRI scans to examine the brain development of 59 adults who participated in SAAF at age 11 with 57 adults from nearly identical backgrounds who did not. They found that those who participated in SAAF — all of whom are 25 years old now — had greater volumes in regions of the brain that promote learning, memory and stress tolerance.
“You can think of a brain like a muscle that we have to strengthen throughout childhood and adolescence,” said Brody, Regents Professor of Human Development and Family Science in UGA’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “When that muscle gets the proper levels of stimulation and protections against stress that a nurturing caregiver provides, people tend to do much better.”
Brody noted that scientists have begun to investigate the possibility that growing up in poverty may have effects on areas of the brain that support children’s learning, memory, mood and the ability to cope with stress. SAAF was designed to enhance parenting and strengthen family relationships among African-American families living in the rural South.
“Not all children and adolescents who grow up in poverty experience adverse outcomes. A subset of young people who receive supportive parenting develop resilience to the consequences of poverty,” said Brody, who also works as part of UGA’s Owens Institute for Behavioral Research. “We’re expanding these findings using a controlled trial of a prevention program to test those ideas and show that supportive parenting has important benefits for brain development.
“We’ve been following these participants since they were 11 years old and everything we’ve learned over the past 14 years has reinforced our conviction that caregiving is incredibly important to many facets of human development including brain development,” he said.
In addition to effects on the brain, Brody’s research with the SAAF participants has found they have lower levels of stress hormones circulating in their bodies, they have lower levels of inflammation, and they are less likely to show biological markers of premature aging.
“It’s very gratifying to see scientific evidence that SAAF can benefit the health and well-being of young African-Americans,” Brody said.
If substantiated, these findings may also highlight a strategy for policymakers and practitioners from pediatricians to parent-teacher organizations to use in ameliorating social disparities.