Study shows brain health impacts of disadvantaged environments

A new study from scientists at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health suggests brain health and development are negatively influenced by living in disadvantaged neighborhoods. 

By measuring total brain volume as well as the brain’s hippocampal region — which plays a role in emotion and memory — study authors drew a connection between cognitive health and subjects’ physical environments.

“This research is among the first to demonstrate that the relative disadvantage of our neighborhoods is linked to brain structures involved in memory function,” said Jack Hunt, a dual PhD and medical degree student in the school’s medical scientist training program. 

Hunt worked with Barbara Bendlin and Amy Kind, associate professors of medicine, to conduct the research. Their results were recently published online in the Journal of the American Medical Association Neurology. 

After taking MRI measurements from 951 “cognitively normal” adults, the researchers found that subjects from the most highly disadvantaged neighborhoods had slightly smaller hippocampal areas — about 4 percent lower than those from more advantaged areas. 

Study authors said the difference is equal to up to seven years of brain development. Previous studies have drawn a connection between having a smaller hippocampus and major depression as well as post-traumatic stress disorder. Plus, heightened vulnerability to stress has been shown in those with a smaller hippocampus. 

Neighborhood disadvantage relates to poverty levels, unemployment, education level and housing equality in a specific area. For this study, neighborhoods were assessed and compared using a tool developed by Kind called the Neighborhood Atlas. 

The study notes the link between neighborhood disadvantage and brain structure wasn’t caused by differences in race or years of education. A release from the university says economic and environmental factors could be related to “multiple, distinct pathways that affect brain health.” 

Kind says clinicians could use methods similar to their study to identify population-wide factors influencing brain health and growth. 

“The same technology could then help direct preventive strategies like improving access to affordable healthcare, housing, nutritious foods, community activities, or caregiver support to the individuals and communities that need them most,” she said. 

Participants came from the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center Clinical Core, where Kind holds a leadership position, and the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention study. WRAP is one of the largest studies of its kind in the world and the Clinical Core is a volunteer study group of about 1,000 people. 

Other co-authors on the study include Ozioma Okonkwo, Sanjay Asthana and Sterling Johnson, from the ADRC. 

See more on the Neighborhood Atlas: