Associations Between Socioeconomic Status, Obesity, Cognition, and White Matter Microstructure in Children

Zhaolong Adrian Li, Yuqi Cai, Rita L. Taylor, Sarah A. Eisenstein, Deanna M. Barch, Scott Marek, Tamara Hershey

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Importance: Lower neighborhood and household socioeconomic status (SES) are associated with negative health outcomes and altered brain structure in children. It is unclear whether such findings extend to white matter and via what mechanisms. Objective: To assess whether and how neighborhood and household SES are independently associated with children's white matter microstructure and examine whether obesity and cognitive performance (reflecting environmental cognitive and sensory stimulation) are plausible mediators. Design, Setting, and Participants: This cross-sectional study used baseline data from participants in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study. Data were collected at 21 US sites, and school-based recruitment was used to represent the US population. Children aged 9 to 11 years and their parents or caregivers completed assessments between October 1, 2016, and October 31, 2018. After exclusions, 8842 of 11 875 children in the ABCD study were included in the analyses. Data analysis was conducted from July 11 to December 19, 2022. Exposures: Neighborhood disadvantage was derived from area deprivation indices at participants' primary residence. Household SES factors were total income and highest parental educational attainment. Main Outcomes and Measures: A restriction spectrum imaging (RSI) model was used to quantify restricted normalized directional (RND; reflecting oriented myelin organization) and restricted normalized isotropic (RNI; reflecting glial and neuronal cell bodies) diffusion in 31 major white matter tracts. The RSI measurements were scanner harmonized. Obesity was assessed through body mass index (BMI; calculated as weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared), age- and sex-adjusted BMI z scores, and waist circumference, and cognition was assessed through the National Institutes of Health Toolbox Cognition Battery. Analyses were adjusted for age, sex, pubertal development stage, intracranial volume, mean head motion, and twin or siblingship. Results: Among 8842 children, 4543 (51.4%) were boys, and the mean (SD) age was 9.9 (0.7) years. Linear mixed-effects models revealed that greater neighborhood disadvantage was associated with lower RSI-RND in the left superior longitudinal fasciculus (β = -0.055; 95% CI, -0.081 to -0.028) and forceps major (β = -0.040; 95% CI, -0.067 to -0.013). Lower parental educational attainment was associated with lower RSI-RND in the bilateral superior longitudinal fasciculus (eg, right hemisphere: β = 0.053; 95% CI, 0.025-0.080) and bilateral corticospinal or pyramidal tract (eg, right hemisphere: β = 0.042; 95% CI, 0.015-0.069). Structural equation models revealed that lower cognitive performance (eg, lower total cognition score and higher neighborhood disadvantage: β = -0.012; 95% CI, -0.016 to -0.009) and greater obesity (eg, higher BMI and higher neighborhood disadvantage: β = -0.004; 95% CI, -0.006 to -0.001) partially accounted for the associations between SES and RSI-RND. Lower household income was associated with higher RSI-RNI in most tracts (eg, right inferior longitudinal fasciculus: β = -0.042 [95% CI, -0.073 to -0.012]; right anterior thalamic radiations: β = -0.045 [95% CI, -0.075 to -0.014]), and greater neighborhood disadvantage had similar associations in primarily frontolimbic tracts (eg, right fornix: β = 0.046 [95% CI, 0.019-0.074]; right anterior thalamic radiations: β = 0.045 [95% CI, 0.018-0.072]). Lower parental educational attainment was associated with higher RSI-RNI in the forceps major (β = -0.048; 95% CI, -0.077 to -0.020). Greater obesity partially accounted for these SES associations with RSI-RNI (eg, higher BMI and higher neighborhood disadvantage: β = 0.015; 95% CI, 0.011-0.020). Findings were robust in sensitivity analyses and were corroborated using diffusion tensor imaging. Conclusions and Relevance: In this cross-sectional study, both neighborhood and household contexts were associated with white matter development in children, and findings suggested that obesity and cognitive performance were possible mediators in these associations. Future research on children's brain health may benefit from considering these factors from multiple socioeconomic perspectives.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e2320276
JournalJAMA Network Open
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2023


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