Twelfth International Summer School on Mind, Brain and Education

2017 September 1–7

Neuroscience of poverty

Director of the School: Antonio M. Battro
Director of the Course: Sebastián J. Lipina
Codirectors of the Course: Eric Pakulak, María Soledad Segretin
Management Assistance of the Course: Matías Lopez-Rosenfeld
Program Officer of the School: Lula Majdalani

Thomas, Michael
University of London, UK

Dr. Michael Thomas is a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Birkbeck, University of London, UK, and Director of the University of London Centre for Educational Neuroscience. His current work in educational neuroscience includes understanding the role of inhibitory control in children's science and math learning, investigating the influence of cell phone use on adolescent brain development, linking findings on sensitive periods in brain development to their educational implications, and building links between genetics, environment and education in children’s developmental outcomes.


Neurocomputational mechanisms underlying socio-economic status effects on cognitive development
Differences in the socio-economic status (SES) of children’s families can lead to uneven effects on children’s cognitive development. For example, the effects are stronger on language development and executive function, weaker on the development of visuospatial skills (Hackman & Farah, 2009). Recently, correlations have been found in brain imaging studies between regional cortical surface area and SES, in some cases appearing to mediate the relationship between SES and behaviour (Noble et al., 2015). Nevertheless, several different causal pathways may underlie these correlations, including prenatal effects, post-natal nurturing, and cognitive stimulation (Hackman, Farah & Meaney, 2010). Identifying the causal pathways informs the optimal avenues for policy changes to reduce the impact of SES differences on children’s developmental outcomes. Within cognitive neuroscience, one method used to investigate causal mechanisms is computational modelling. Artificial neural network models in particular allow the simultaneous study of cognitive development and developmental changes in brain structure as revealed by imaging methods. When populations of developing children are simulated, the impact of differences in SES on cognitive and brain development can be investigated. Importantly, these can be studied in the context of inherited genetic variation in learning ability that explains some proportion of the individual differences in children’s cognitive development. In this talk, I’ll describe recent population-level computational modelling that contrasts different hypotheses for the causal origin of SES differences (pre-natal, cognitive stimulation) in their effects on cognitive and brain development. What hypothesis best captures (a) the observed relative effect sizes and (b) the shapes of the relationships (e.g., sometimes non-linear) observed between SES, behavioural, and brain structure? Why should effects on cognition be uneven? Lastly, I will consider what models of neural mechanism tell us about the scope to alleviate SES-induced behavioural differences through interventions utilising cognitive enrichment.

Literature to share
• Thomas, M.S. (2017). A scientific strategy for life chances. The Psychologist, 30, 22-26.
• Thomas, M.S., Forrester, N.A., & Ronald, A. (2013). Modeling socioeconomic status effects on language development. Developmental Psychology, 49, 2325, doi: 10.1037/a0032301.