How Low Socioeconomic Environment Affects Neurodevelopment and Antisocial Predisposition


An individual’s socioeconomic status (SES) is a primary influence over their experiences throughout the life course.  In the United States alone, 46.7 million people live below the federal poverty line (FPL) (United States Census Bureau [USCB], 2015), and more than 16 million of these are children (National Center for Children in Poverty [NCCP], 2016).  Although no fault of their own, children born into lower socioeconomic environments are placed at an automatic social and biological disadvantage to their more financially stable counterparts.  The poverty experience is rampant with early and repeated exposure to violence, stress, family instability, substandard education, environmental toxins, and neighborhood disorganization.  These negative environmental influences of living in poverty are also important factors in predisposition toward antisocial and criminal behavior.

What follows is an analysis of scientific works on SES and its impact on the development and function of the brain structures that predispose individuals toward antisocial and violent behavior.  This information will be used to support the hypothesis that being conceived, born, and living in low SES environments both biologically and socially predispose individuals toward antisocial behavior, thereby contributing to higher individual and community rates of crime in these communities.  Potential interventions that target improved neural functioning and counteract the negative impact of low SES beginning in utero and throughout the lifespan will be considered.  Future research objectives and concerns in this area also will be outlined.



The United States Census Bureau 2006-2010 data show that 13.8% of the nation’s population lives in poverty (USCB, 2011).  The most impoverished areas, with greater than 40% poverty, also have the lowest levels of educational attainment; highest percentage of Black, American Indian, and Hispanic residents; lowest proportion of full-time employment, and highest rate of part-time and unemployment; greatest percentage of household income less than $29,999, and lowest percentage of income above $50,000; a significantly larger ratio of households with more than three children; and the highest rate of home rentals instead of ownership (USCB, 2011).  Residents of these areas of concentrated neighborhood disadvantage often lack legitimate means for personal and economic success.

Figure 1 shows that juveniles of low socioeconomic status are more likely to participate in antisocial behaviors like gang activity, assault, theft, and carrying firearms than their higher SES peers (Kearney & Harris, 2014).  Criminal victimization rates are also correlated with SES, with risk of victimization being lowered with each increase in income bracket (see figure 2) (Kearney & Harris, 2014).  Low-income individuals are also twice as likely to be victims of non-fatal violent assaults than their middle and upper class counterparts (U.S. Department of Justice [DOJ], 2014).  These social stressors and pressures impact individual behaviors and collective efficacy, increasing crime rates in low SES neighborhoods.

The emerging field of neurocriminology has uncovered numerous neurobiological factors that may predispose an individual toward antisocial behavior.  These factors are often influenced by one’s environment, and when environmental and biological predispositional factors interact, an exponential increase in risk for antisocial behavior exists (Raine, 2016).   Low SES is robustly correlated with lifelong shortfalls in cognitive functioning (Noble, McCandliss, & Farah, 2007), with language and executive functioning most negatively impacted (see figure 3) (Farah, Shera, Savage, Betancourt, Giannetta, Brodsky, Malmud & Hurt, 2006).  Assessing the interactionary nature of biological and environmental factors will help develop interventions to decrease personal and community-level crime in low SES neighborhoods.

Figure 1: Adolescent Risk Behaviors by Family Income Level

vic rates income

Figure 2: Adolescent Risk Behaviors by Family Income Level

 ses and antisocial behavior

Figure 3:  Effect sizes (SD) of neurocognitive systems impacted by low SES.  Black bars are of statistical significance, while gray bars are statistically nonsignificant

(Farah, Shera, Savage, Betancourt, Giannetta, Brodsky, Malmud, Hurt (2006).

figure 3



All environments affect the biological developments and behaviors of their inhabitants, and low SES environments are no exception.  Living in low SES neighborhoods exposes individuals to factors that increase risk of antisocial behavior from before birth.  Socioeconomic status is robustly correlated with risk of prenatal and birth complications, which may lead to deficits in the structure and functioning of critical areas of the brain.  The prefrontal and temporal cortices, amygdala, hippocampus, anterior and posterior cingulate, and angular and superior temporal gyri are all brain structures implicated in both antisocial populations (see figure 4) (Raine & Yang, 2006); and as the primary brain regions affected by the environmental stressors related to poverty (Lefmann and Combs-Orme (2014).  These structures are associated with executive functioning, long term planning, emotion regulation, and moral rationale (Raine & Yang, 2006), all processes that have a substantial impact on behavior, employment prospects, and educational achievement from before birth.  The overlapping nature of these brain structures implicated in socioeconomic and criminology research is cause for further investigation into the mechanisms by which economic factors influence biological factors, or vice versa, in the relentless pursuit of understanding criminal behavior.

The likelihood of experiencing multiple life stressors such as economic instability, poor nutrition, and familial disruption is inversely correlated with income level (Monk, Georgieff, & Osterholm, 2013; Lefmann & Combs-Orme, 2014).  Using 2002-2006 data on women (n=161,784) in 20 states, Braveman et al found that in a sample of poor and near poor women,



Figure 4: MRI images of impaired brain structures in antisocial populations (Raine, 2008)

figure 4


Beginning in the tenth week after conception, the fetal brain begins the tenuous process of development (Lefmann & Combs-Orme, 2014), a process that continues until around age twenty-five. Low SES of pregnant mothers is associated with higher birth complications; increased prenatal nicotine, alcohol, and heavy metal exposure; poor prenatal nutrition; and low IQ (Monk, et al, 2013).  Tess Lefmann and Terri Combs-Orme (2014) analyzed the impact of maternal stress on prenatal brain development, and found that multiple neural structures and pathways are at risk of maldevelopment in the fetuses of mothers from low socioeconomic environments.  Low IQ is a very well replicated correlate of risk of antisocial behavior (Raine, 2013) and increased externalizing behaviors (Liu et al, 2009; Raine, 2013).  Birth complications and malnutrition, both more common in low SES areas, are associated with lowered IQ (Liu, Raine, Wuerker, Venables, & Mednick, 2009; Raine, 2013).

Low socioeconomic status affects the development of the brain as a whole, as well as its individual lobes and structures.  Total surface area, a correlate of childhood intelligence, is decreased in the brains of low SES individuals, and total surface area increases with each $1 increase in family income for the most impoverished children (Noble et. al, 2015).  The educational level of parents is also correlated with total surface area of the brain and childhood intelligence, with each additional year of parental education corresponding with an increase in total surface area (Noble et. al, 2015).  Infants from low SES environments have a significant overall deficit in total gray matter volume, which continues into the toddler years (Hanson, Hair, Shen, Shi, Gilmore, Wolfe, & Pollak, 2013).  A longitudinal assessment of 55 infants from varying levels of socioeconomic status in the Boston and St. Louis areas showed that total gray matter volume and growth trajectory is highly correlated with family income, with the most impoverished children possessing the lowest gray volume (see figure 5) (Hanson et. al, 2013).   While this sample size is small, this finding is well replicated in both animal and human studies on the impact of poverty on the developing brain.

Figure 5: Total gray matter volume and growth trajectory of infants and toddlers by SES.

(Hanson et. al, 2015)

total gray volume


Diminished total gray matter and growth capacity over time is a case for biosocial theories of criminal behavior that would assert the negative environmental influences experienced by low and middle SES children hinder the creation of essential gray matter; while higher SES children excel in production of gray.  Externalizing behaviors like rule breaking, hyperactivity, and aggression are associated with lower total gray volumes (Hanson et. al, 2013), highlighting a tangible correlation between childhood poverty and increased predisposition toward antisocial behaviors.


Frontal Lobe

The role of the prefrontal cortex is paramount in the formation of our personalities, behaviors, and intellects, and any abnormal anatomy, injury, or function of this area has the ability to alter the way the think and act (Raine, 2013).  Executive functions such as problem solving, long-term planning, and verbal reasoning, as well as behavioral traits like attention span, inhibition, sensation-seeking, and emotion regulation are inherent in the prefrontal cortex (Lefmann & Combs-Orme, 2014).  A metaanalysis of frontal lobe dysfunction research found a significant effect size of d=-0.62 for violent behavior, and d=-0.57 for antisocial personality disorder (Raine & Yang, 2009), a similar effect size (d=0.60) between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and attention scores (Meyer, 2001).  Implicated in executive functions like attention, impulse control, and planning ability (Hanson, Hair, Hen, Shi, Gilmore, Wolfe, & Pollak, 2013), a deficit in the prefrontal cortex is the most robust correlate of criminal behavior (Raine, 2013; Raine & Yang, 2006).

Hanson et al (2013) also analyzed individual lobe differences and found frontal gray volume and growth trajectory to be significantly reduced in children living at or below 200% of the FPL (see figure 6).  With a sample of 90 individuals from temporary employment agencies in Los Angeles, correlation between frontal lobe volume and antisocial personality disorder (APD) was assessed by Raine, Yang, Narr, and Toga (2011).  Reduced orbito- and middle frontal gray volume was found to be associated with APD and criminal offending in both sexes, and those with low gray volume in these areas had increased antisocial behavior compared to individuals with heightened gray matter volume (Raine et. al, 2011).  Males with APD were found to have a 17.3% deficit in gray matter volume in the middle frontal cortex, a 16.1% decline in gray volume in the right rectal cortex, and 8.7% less orbitofrontal gray volume when compared to controls (Raine et. al, 2011).

Figure 6: Frontal gray volume and growth trajectory for infants and toddlers by SES.

(Hanson et. al, 2015)

frontal gray


The research literature on the impact of low SES and brain development consistently show frontal lobe deficits that begin soon after conception, and continue throughout adulthood.  These deficiencies in executive functioning, intelligence, decision-making and impulsivity that stem from being born into poverty predispose low SES individuals toward criminal and antisocial behavior.  The importance of proper frontal lobe functioning in our abilities to thrive in educational, social, personal, and employment settings has been replicated repeatedly, and the automatic frontal deficit experienced by low SES individuals places them at a disadvantage in all areas of life.


Temporal Lobe

Gray matter volume reduction in the temporal lobe is correlated with incidence of aggression and APD (Raine & Yang, 2006).  The amygdala and hippocampus, both temporal lobe structures, have been studied and found to be relevant in relation to both SES and antisocial behavior.  Parental and personal educational attainment also has an effect on total volumes of the hippocampus and amygdala (Noble et. al, 2015), showing a connection between intergenerational educational achievement and likelihood of being aggressive and criminal.

Expectations of educational attainment are also correlated with SES, with high school sophomores from low SES backgrounds having lower level educational aspirations than middle SES sophomores, who had lower expectations than high SES sophomores (see figure 7) (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2015).  The etiology of this data should be further investigated to uncover if these disparities in expected attainment are a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby low SES adolescents innately feel that they are at an educational disadvantage because of their geographic positionality; or if the decreased functioning and volume of neural structures restricts these individuals from believing that they are able to perform at the levels required for higher educational achievement.


Figure 7: Percentage of high school sophomores (2002 & 2004) and their expected level of educational attainment by SES.  (Institute of Education Sciences [IES], 2015).

attainment exp



The amygdala is located within the temporal lobe of the brain, and participates in fear conditioning, conscience development, rule breaking, emotion regulation, and the processing of social cues – all of which are key components of antisocial behavior (Raine, 2008).  Left amygdala volume, associated with behavioral concerns like increased rule-breaking, is negatively affected by low SES, and physical abuse and early neglect (see figure 8), with low SES having the greatest negative impact on this structure (Hanson, et al, 2014).  Noble et al (2015), however, did not find the same impact of SES on the size of the amygdala as Hanson et al (2014).

Amygdala volume was found to be increased by 20-25% in the offspring of stressed rats; however a 25-30% reduction in neurons and glial cells was also found in the same sample (Kraszpulski, Dickerson, & Salm, 2006).  This finding is opposite of the shrunken amygdala finding in much neurocriminology literature concerning antisocial behavior.  The lack of consensus about the role of amygdala gray volume warrants further research into this structure and how it affects behavior and is affected by SES.


Figure 8: Left amygdala volume for low SES, physically abused, neglected, and comparison samples controlling for total gray volume, sex, and pubertal stage.  (Hanson, et al, 2014).





The hippocampus, like the amygdala, is relevant in fear conditioning, development of conscience, emotion regulation, and aggression (Raine, 2006; Raine, 2013), as well as learning, and memory (Lefmann & Combs-Orme, 2014).  As with amygdala volume deficits, reduced hippocampal volume is associated with antisocial behaviors (Hanson et al, 2014). The stresses experienced during low SES pregnancy can negatively impact the size and volume of the hippocampus from before birth (Lefmann & Combs-Orme, 2014).  Utilizing primarily laboratory data from rats and nonhuman primates, a reduction in hippocampal volume in the offspring of mothers exposed to environmental stressors has been found (Lefmann & Combs, 2014; Uno, Tarara, Else, Sulemen, & Sapolsky, 1989).  Other low SES factors linked to hippocampal abnormalities include low birth weight (Lefmann & Combs-Orme, 2014; Hackman, Farah, & Meaney, 2010); and neglect, family instability, and substance abuse, which contribute to right volume greater than left hippocampal asymmetry (Raine, 2013).

Household income is also correlated with gray matter volume in the hippocampus, with children from lower socioeconomic environments showing a deficit in this structure as compared to children from high-income families (Lefmann & Combs-Orme, 2014).  In a sample of 1,099 individuals aged three to 20, Noble et al found a linkage between parental education level and left hemisphere hippocampal volume; while low SES, early neglect, and physical abuse were found to negatively affect both left and right hippocampal volume (Hanson et. al, 2014).  As with the left amygdala volume findings, Hanson et al (2014) found low SES to be related to the greatest deficit in left and right hippocampal volume, with early neglect and physical abuse also correlated with volume reductions in these structures (see figure 8).  Noble et al (2015) failed to confirm Hanson et al (2014) and Lefmann & Combs-Orme (2014) finding that SES affects either the left or the right hippocampal volumes.


Figure 8: Left and right hippocampal volume comparisons by risk factor (early neglect, low SES, and physical abuse), and controlled for gray matter volume, sex, and pubertal stage (Hanson, et al., 2014).

left hipp

right hip


Angular and Superior Temporal Gyri

Located in the lower portion of the parietal lobe of the brain, and where the temporal, occipital, and parietal lobes meet, the angular gyrus is vital in moral decision making, reading, mathematics, verbal communication, and has an impact on quality of written communication (Raine, 2013).   The angular gyrus has been found to have reduced functioning in the violent and impulsive criminal cohort (Raine, 2013).  The superior temporal gyrus is involved in language development and emotion.  Children with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and those who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from childhood maltreatment were found to have increased gray matter volumes in the superior temporal gyrus (DeBellis, Keshavan, Shifflett, Iyengar, Dahl, Axelson, Birmaher, Hall, Moritz, & Ryan, 2002).


Anterior and Posterior Cingulate

 The anterior and posterior cingulate are part of the emotional center of the brain, important in self-reflection and moral thinking (Raine, 2013).  The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is involved in emotion, executive functioning, problem solving, and motivation (Rosen, 2009).  The posterior cingulate has also been found to be dysfunctional in aggressive and psychopathic individuals, and boys diagnosed with conduct disorder (Raine, 2013).  A metaanalysis of studies on boys with disruptive behavioral patterns showed a consistent deficit in ACC activity, with the right, left, and ventral ACC most negatively impacted (Gavita, Capris, Bolno, & David, 2012).  Lack of paternal care and low SES environments have been shown to have a negative impact on the development of the ACC , which in turn contributes to deficits in important emotional and cognitive functions (Ovtscharoff, Helmeke, & Braun, 2006).



The parietal lobes of the brain begin their process of development later than other lobes, and continue to develop throughout childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood (Institute for Research on Poverty, 2014).  The parietal lobe is associated with language and mathematical processing.  As with frontal and total gray, parietal gray shows a blunted growth trajectory and volume deficit for low SES children, with middle SES children having a higher volume of parietal gray, and high SES children having the highest volume amount of parietal gray in childhood (see figure 9) (Hanson et al., 2013).  No association was found between externalizing behaviors and low parietal gray as there was with total and frontal gray deficits (Hanson et al., 2013).

Figure 9: Parietal gray volume and growth trajectory from infancy to toddlerhood based on SES

(Hanson et. al, 2015).



Cavum Septum Pellucidum

Another prenatal factor that is involved in antisocial behaviors and criminal history is the flawed development of the septum pellucidum, a structure or gray and white matter that is supposed to fuse together by the age of six months (Raine, 2013).  When this fusion is absent, the condition is termed cavum septum pellucidum (CSP), and it is correlated with APD, aggression, criminal convictions, and psychopathy scores (see figure 10) (Raine, 2013).  The mechanism for septum pellucidum maldevelopment is unknown, but it is hypothesized to be related to prenatal alcohol exposure (Raine, 2013).

Figure 10: a) APD scores of those with and without cavum septum pellucidum; b) psychopathy scores of those with and without cavum septum pellucidum; c) number of criminal charges and convictions of those with and without cavum septum pellucidum (Raine et al, 2010).







Lead and Cadmium

Much attention has been given to the effects that environmental neurotoxins like lead and cadmium have on development.  Children from low SES environments are at increased risk of exposure to higher levels of these chemicals in soil, water, and household paint than those from higher income families.  Elevated lead exposure reduces frontal cortex volume (Mielke & Zahran, 2012; Raine, 2013), a major correlate in antisocial and violent behavior.  Prenatal exposure to increased lead levels increases risk of child, adolescent, and adult antisocial behavior.  Mielke and Zahran (2012) found that across the six major cities they studied, decreasing lead levels in urban soil mediate 90% of the decades-long decline in rates of aggravated assault.

In 2007, Rick Nevin published a study on environmental lead levels and crime, and theorized that rising lead levels from the 1950s to the 1970s explained the rise in violence two decades later (Nevin, 2007; Raine, 2013).  Reduced environmental lead late in the 1970s and early in the 1980s, according to Nevin, corresponds with lowered violent crime in the 1990s (Nevin, 2007; Raine, 2013).  In animal research, rats exposed to low levels of cadmium prenatally showed increased hyperactivity after birth, and rats given small amounts of cadmium exhibited more violence and aggression and were more prone to mouse-killing (Pihl & Ervin, 1990).  In a 2012 study by Ciesielski et al., high levels of cadmium in the urine of children and adolescents was correlated with increased occurrence of learning disabilities, behavioral concerns, and psychiatric conditions. Understanding the impact and facilitating the removal of these toxic environmental heavy metals must be of utmost importance in the future. Nevin’s (2007) research on lead is shocking, and should be replicated to assess its possible application in the public and environmental policy realm.



            Currently, our national federal corrections budget is near $7 billion annually (Congressional Research Service, 2014). With increased federal and state spending on prenatal care for expectant underserved mothers, health care for infants and children, nutritional programs in schools, head start programs, and educational quality in low income communities, we will likely reduce our federal corrections spending. The data and research discussed within highlights the importance of increasing educational attainment, nutrition, and healthcare for low SES individuals in the crusade to lower crime.

In the legal system, neurobiological data and imaging can be of utmost importance in understanding criminal motivation and culpability for wrongdoing. This research can have a major impact on all aspects of the criminal justice system, from law enforcement contact, to arrest, adjudication, and sentencing procedures. Understanding how the impeded structure and function of the brains of low SES individuals works differently than those of middle or high SES backgrounds in paramount in public and governmental treatment of individuals who commit antisocial acts.



A popular assumption about those who commit crime or participate in antisocial behaviors is that they are essentially bad and immoral people. The research highlighted in this paper illustrates the neurological basis for the opposite assumption, and supports biosocial theories of criminal behavior that assert the importance of the interaction of environmental and biological factors. Academics have an obligation to continue this type of interdisciplinary research in order to change the public perception of low SES neighborhoods and individuals as lazy, criminal, and unintelligent.

The most important structures in the brain responsible for rational behavior, learning, memory, aggression, emotion, and fear conditioning are all negatively impacted from the time a low SES fetus is in utero, and continuing throughout the lifespan. These children are born at a social, personal, educational, and emotional disadvantage to their higher SES counterparts, which perpetuate cycles of poverty and crime in impoverished populations.

It has been shown throughout decades of research on poverty and crime that there is a concrete correlation between low SES neighborhoods and individual and community rates of crime.  Neurocriminology research has now highlighted the deficits and enlarged areas of the brain that are implicated in all types of criminal offending and antisocial behavior.  These two fields of research must cooperate in order to further our understanding and reduction of crime in areas of concentrated disadvantage.

The association between quality and duration of parental and childhood education and antisocial behavior is a robust finding that must be addressed in public policy to reduce neurobiological deficits and antisocial behavior in low SES individuals.  Interventions, policies, and programs must be implemented in the most affected neighborhoods and populations that improve prenatal and postnatal care services, educational experiences, and parental involvement.  Our local, state, and federal corrections budget must be shifted from punitive endeavors to preventative programs that address the predispositional factors that lead to increased antisocial behaviors. Investing in public services that promote health, education, and employment, as well as environmental initiatives to decrease the toxic levels of heavy metals like lead and cadmium should have a long-term effect in reducing crime and improving human capital in low SES communities.





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