Subcortical structural variations associated with low socioeconomic status in adolescents

Hum Brain Mapp. 2020 Jan;41(1):162-171. doi: 10.1002/hbm.24796. Epub 2019 Oct 1.


Low socioeconomic status (SES) is associated with a higher probability of multiple exposures (e.g., neighborhood violence, poor nutrition, housing instability, air pollution, and insensitive caregiving) known to affect structural development of subcortical brain regions that subserve threat and reward processing, however, few studies have examined the relationship between SES and such subcortical structures in adolescents. We examined SES variations in volume and surface morphometry of subcortical regions. The sample comprised 256 youth in eighth grade (mean age = 13.9 years), in whom high dimensional deformation mapping of structural 3T magnetic resonance imaging scans was performed. Vertex-wise linear regression analyses examined associations between income to poverty ratio and surfaces of the hippocampus, amygdala, thalamus, caudate, putamen, nucleus accumbens and pallidum, with the covariates age, pubertal status, and intracranial volume. Given sex differences in pubertal development and subcortical maturation at this age, the analyses were stratified by sex. Among males, who at this age average an earlier pubertal stage than females, the relationship between SES and local shape variation in subcortical regions was almost entirely positive. For females, the relationship between SES and local shape variation was negative. Racial identity was associated with SES in our sample, however supplementary analyses indicated that most of the associations between SES and subcortical structure were independent of it. Although these cross-sectional results are not definitive, they are consistent with a scenario where low SES delays structural maturation of subcortical regions involved with threat and reward processing. Future longitudinal studies are needed to test this hypothesis.

Keywords: adolescence; morphology; socioeconomic status.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Development / physiology*
  • Amygdala / anatomy & histology*
  • Amygdala / diagnostic imaging
  • Corpus Striatum / anatomy & histology*
  • Corpus Striatum / diagnostic imaging
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / anatomy & histology*
  • Hippocampus / diagnostic imaging
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Class*
  • Thalamus / anatomy & histology*
  • Thalamus / diagnostic imaging