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Housing as preventative neuroscience

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Photograph: Jezza Neumann/BBC/True Vision Productions Ltd

Photograph: Jezza Neumann/BBC/True Vision Productions Ltd

Last week, the International Neuroethics Society had its Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. Neuroscientists, ethicists, lawyers and policy makers from around the world gathered to discuss a broad range of topics, from groundbreaking neuroscientific research, to artificial intelligence, neuroscience in healthcare, and the significant investment in brain sciences by the US BRAIN Initiative and the European Human Brain Project. And surprisingly, subsidized housing.
So how did housing become a major focus of a human rights panel at a neuroscience conference?
Recognizing the enormous burden that neurological and psychiatric disorders place on individuals, families and society, one of the major goals of the BRAIN Initiative is to develop better tools to understand how the brain functions in health and disease. This investment is much needed, as the global burden of neurological disorders is recognized by the WHO as one of the greatest threats to public health.
But what are we doing about preventing some of the neurological damage from occurring in the first place? Building on a seminal book from 2000 titled From neurons to neighborhoods, Dr Mariana Chilton, Director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, suggested that the most effective solution is safe and affordable housing.

Children in the US experience the most poverty during critical phases of brain development
We know that the first three years of life are the most crucial in human development, and are when we see the most rapid development of the brain and central nervous system. Hence, during this period, children are particularly vulnerable to circumstances that can interfere with cognitive development, and go on to cause irreparable damage impacting the rest of their life.
Yet this incredibly sensitive developmental period is also when children in the US are most likely to live in poverty. A frightening 14% of all households in the US experience food insecurity, and more than 1 in 5 (22%) children live below the Federal poverty level. At the same time, research is showing the links between highly stressful experiences early in life and long-term consequences for that individual’s physical and mental health.
Some of the most common causes of such stresses are food and housing insecurity. We have long known about the impact of malnutrition in early childhood on stunting, development delays and cognitive impairment, but more research is emerging looking at the specific ways in which food insecurity in the US is affecting childhood cognitive development.
Food insecurity dramatically increases the likelihood of dietary deficiencies, such as iron-deficiency anemia (IDA), which delays cognitive development by altering the efficiency of central nervous system functions. Children living in food insecure households are 140% more likely to develop IDA. The negative effects of IDA are enduring and can last well beyond the period of deficiency, and studies have linked IDA in infancy with impaired IQ, motor skills, balance, and coordination later in life.
Further, even marginal levels of food insecurity in each childhood (where the child had enough food but families struggled to meet their needs) can have a long-term negative impact on the cognitive and socio-emotional development of a child, and on their educational outcomes.
Why housing?
Housing is the single largest annual expenditure for most US families, so it’s not surprising that families that experienced financial pressures related to housing (such as being behind on rent or mortgage repayments) more frequently experienced food insecurity. Children’s HealthWatch also found that subsidized housing made the greatest difference in protecting the development of children living in families struggling to put enough food on the table. Researched conducted in Boston showed that food insecure children living in subsidized housing were 52% percent less likely to be seriously underweight than food insecure children on the wait list.
Food aside, forms of extreme stress (including that arising from insecure housing situations) can also disrupt normal development of brain architecture and circuitry with life-long repercussions.
A more honest discussion?
We have the evidence pointing to the vulnerability of neurological harm that a huge proportion of US children face through poverty, we know that housing is recognized as a strong social determinant of health, and the cost-effectiveness of housing subsidies and other social programs has been established time and again. Why then, is this issue rarely discussed in the same conversations in which we champion the importance of investing millions each year in neuroscience research to cure neurological and mental disorders?
Katherine Shats is the senior researcher and program coordinator of the O’Neill Institute-Pellegrino Center Program in Brain Science and Global Health Law and Policy.

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  • Bluehope says:

    You raise a very important and relevant point about impact on housing insecurities on child brain development.
    Young children perceive the world through eyes and emotions of their parents. Any stress in the family inevitably impacts children if parents cannot cope with it themselves and cannot shield their children from it. These can be financial, housing, health, relationship and many other problems. Poverty, food and housing insecurities are the most obvious and strong. I think the pressure is on parents to try to minimize the impact of all the negative factors in life on their children. It is important to somehow convey this message and train parents to do it however difficult it is…

  • Luis Enrique Rosas says:

    Congrats Katherine, it is a very interesting blog post. I would like to know, do you know some books on neuroscience, regulation, and its effects on public policy?
    Congrats again the blog likes me too much

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