Women who experienced socioeconomic hardship in childhood tend to exhibit reduced connectivity in the hippocampus, which in turn is associated with higher levels of anxiety, according to new research published in the journal Psychological Medicine.
“It has been clear for a long time that people born into socioeconomically disadvantaged conditions are more likely to experience mental health problems as adults. What interested me the most about this was, if being born into socioeconomically harsh conditions can actually change the structure or function of the brain and how these changes look like,” said study author Pavla Čermáková, a senior researcher at the Czech National Institute of Mental Health and head of Department of Epidemiology at Charles University.
For their study, the researchers examined data from 122 individuals from the Czech Republic who participated in the European Longitudinal Study of Pregnancy and Childhood and a follow-up study called Biomarkers and Underlying Mechanisms of Vulnerability to Depression.
Parents of the participants completed several surveys regarding themselves and their child. Mothers were enrolled during pregnancy and the study concluded when their child was 19 years old. Importantly, the mothers were asked early in the study to answer how difficult it was to secure food, clothes, heating, rent/other fees and things necessary for their child, which the researchers used as a measure of early-life socioeconomic deprivation.
In the follow-up study, the participants underwent extensive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain when they were aged 23–24 years. They also completed assessments of anxiety and depressive symptoms.
The researchers found that socioeconomic deprivation experienced during the first 18 months of life was linked to anxiety and depressive symptoms in both male and female participants. They also found evidence that the association between socioeconomic deprivation and anxiety was related to hippocampal connectivity in women.
“Our study suggests that being born into socioeconomically harsh conditions increases the risk of being anxious in young adulthood and this may be explained by how a specific structure in the brain, the hippocampus, connects to other brain regions — however, only for women,” Čermaková told PsyPost. “It is really fascinating to me that our brains function differently in young adulthood, based on the conditions in which we grew up.”
The hippocampus is part of the brain’s limbic system, and is crucial for memory and learning. But research also suggests that the hippocampus plays an important role in emotional regulation.
“We saw clear sex differences in the brain mechanisms that explain how being born into socioeconomically harsh environment affect our mental health,” Čermaková said. “Future research should address what these results mean for women and for men in the long-term. We need to follow this population further in order to see whether men or women will further differ in their risk of anxiety later in life.”
In previous work, Čermaková and her colleagues examined data on 20,244 people from 16 European countries and found that those who were socioeconomically disadvantaged in childhood tended to score lower on cognitive tests of verbal and memory skills and also score higher in symptoms of depression.
“Our new study is interesting because the participants come from the Czech Republic. They were born shortly after the fall of the communist regime, during which socioeconomic inequalities were small,” Čermaková said. “However, we could see that even these small inequalities translated into different mental health profiles of those individuals.”
The new study, “Socioeconomic deprivation in early life and symptoms of depression and anxiety in young adulthood: mediating role of hippocampal connectivity,” was authored by Pavla Čermáková, Lenka Andrýsková, Milan Brázdil, and Klára Marečková.