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Socioeconomic status and the brain: prospects for neuroscience-informed policy


Socioeconomic status (SES) is associated with health (physical and mental) and cognitive ability. Understanding and ameliorating the problems of low SES have long been goals of economics and sociology; in recent years, these have also become goals of neuroscience. However, opinion varies widely on the relevance of neuroscience to SES-related policy. The present article addresses the question of whether and how neuroscience can contribute to the development of social policy concerning poverty and the social and ethical risks inherent in trying. I argue that the neuroscience approach to SES-related policy has been both prematurely celebrated and peremptorily dismissed and that some of its possible social impacts have been viewed with excessive alarm. Neuroscience has already made modest contributions to SES-related policy, and its potential to have a more effective and beneficial influence can be expected to grow over the coming years.

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Fig. 1: Trends in health and cognitive outcomes across levels of SES and the growth of the field of SES neuroscience.


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The author is grateful to many people for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper, including S. Lipina, C. Nelson, T. Nichols, K. Noble, J. Shonkoff and four anonymous reviewers.

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M.J.F. researched data for the article, made substantial contributions to discussions of the content, wrote the article and reviewed and/or edited the manuscript before submission.

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Correspondence to Martha J. Farah.

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Farah, M.J. Socioeconomic status and the brain: prospects for neuroscience-informed policy. Nat Rev Neurosci 19, 428–438 (2018).

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