Early Childhood Socioeconomic Status and Cognitive and Adaptive Outcomes at the Transition to Adulthood: The Mediating Role of Gray Matter Development Across Five Scan Waves

      Abstract

      Background

      Early low socioeconomic status (SES) is associated with poor outcomes in childhood, many of which endure into adulthood. It is critical to determine how early low SES relates to trajectories of brain development and whether these mediate relationships to poor outcomes. We use data from a unique 17-year longitudinal study with five waves of structural brain imaging to prospectively examine relationships between preschool SES and cognitive, social, academic, and psychiatric outcomes in early adulthood.

      Methods

      Children (n = 216, 50% female, 47.2% non-White) were recruited from a study of early onset depression and followed approximately annually. Family income-to-needs ratios (SES) were assessed when children were ages 3 to 5 years. Volumes of cortical gray and white matter and subcortical gray matter collected across five scan waves were processed using the FreeSurfer Longitudinal pipeline. When youth were ages 16+ years, cognitive function was assessed using the NIH Toolbox, and psychiatric diagnoses, high-risk behaviors, educational function, and social function were assessed using clinician administered and parent/youth report measures.

      Results

      Lower preschool SES related to worse cognitive, high-risk, educational, and social outcomes (|standardized B| = 0.20–0.31, p values < .003). Lower SES was associated with overall lower cortical (standardized B = 0.12, p < .0001) and subcortical gray matter (standardized B = 0.17, p < .0001) volumes, as well as a shallower slope of subcortical gray matter growth over time (standardized B = 0.04, p = .012). Subcortical gray matter mediated the relationship of preschool SES to cognition and high-risk behaviors.

      Conclusions

      These novel longitudinal data underscore the key role of brain development in understanding the long-lasting relations of early low SES to outcomes in children.

      Keywords

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