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Is City Life Too Stressful for Kids? New Study Suggests it Changes the Brain.

city kids and brain development

How the city affects developing brains

I’ve lived in a city — New York and Los Angeles — for the last 12 years. And for the last three, I’ve been raising my son in one.

City life: never-ending food choices, nightlife (okay, back in the day), museums, events, six farmers markets to choose from on the weekend, diversity. The benefits are clear.

But for me, there’s no doubt that it comes with a certain strain too — fast-paced life, competition (at least in the cities we’ve chosen), noise, crowds.

And a new study in the journal Nature tells us that urban life may cause real changes to the brain, in terms of how it processes stress and social cues — and those changes may be particularly powerful if we live in cities early in life: 

To test how people respond to stress, the researchers used an FMRI machine (which detects activity in different regions of the brain while people are engaged in a certain task) as subjects worked to solve a series of problems. As they took the a test, the subjects were given negative feedback — they were told they weren’t performing well and were told to hurry up.

In other words, they were subjected to social pressure and stress. And how their brains reacted varied depending on whether they lived in a city or more rural environment. People currently living in cities showed more activation in the amygdala, a region involved in processing fear and other basic emotions.

The ones who had grown up in a city showed more activity in the cingulate cortex, which the researchers say processes negative emotion and helps regulate the amygdala.

It’s already been shown that mental illness, for example, is more prevalent in city dwellers. The implications of this study are that city living has a real role in shaping how the brain responds to stress — especially stress of a social nature.

Kids who live in busy urban areas have to deal with a lot of people and social interaction (good and bad) throughout the day. It seems the brain stays sensitive and can be triggered easily when it comes to social stress — possibly through adulthood, even if those city-dwellers eventually move to a small town.

Well, we’re city folk over here, at least for now.  But I’m aware of how taxing it can be sometimes for my little guy, and I think it’s important to give him plenty of downtime — to try to insert bits and pieces of peace and quiet in his busy little week.

What do you think? Is the city stressful for kids?

Image:  flickr

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