Tuesday, May 21st 2024 Learning Differences, Research

Stanford-led study links school environment to brain development

Researchers found increased white matter development in children from higher-performing schools.

by Rebecca Beyer

A new study finds that children who attend higher-performing schools show greater year-by-year advances in brain development, even those coming from a wide range of socioeconomic environments. Photo: Allison Shelley for EDUimages


For decades, researchers have linked differences in school-age children’s brain development to their out-of-school environment, using indirect socioeconomic factors such as parental income and neighborhood characteristics. 

In a new paper, researchers from Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE) demonstrate for the first time that, even when controlling for those other factors, there is a direct link between a child’s school environment and the development of their white matter, or the network of nerve fibers that allows different parts of the brain to communicate. 

In other words, schools that do better than average at promoting learning are showing greater year-by-year advances in brain development, even for students coming from a wide range of socioeconomic environments. 

For their study, the authors, including GSE doctoral candidate Ethan Roy, Professor Bruce McCandliss, and Associate Professor Jason Yeatman, leveraged data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States, and the Stanford Education Data Archive (SEDA), a national database of academic performance developed by the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University. 

Their findings show that children who attend higher-performing schools have accelerated white matter development, including in an area of the brain closely associated with reading skills.

Roy said the results, published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience on April 26, were “striking.”

“What jumped off the page for us is that, even when controlling for things like parental income, parental education, neighborhood context, and household conflict levels, we were still able to observe a significant relationship between the school environment of an individual and growth properties of their brain,” he said.

Filling a gap in learning science research

Yeatman, who along with McCandliss serves as an advisor to Roy, said the study is the first to show how variation in the educational opportunities afforded to children is related to brain development.

“Essentially, two children from similar families who are born on two sides of a school boundary have measurable differences in how their brains wire together,” said Yeatman, who holds a joint faculty appointment at the GSE and Stanford Medicine, is a faculty affiliate of the Stanford Accelerator for Learning, and directs the Brain Development & Education Lab and Rapid Online Assessment of Reading

The study looked at fractional anisotropy, a measure of how water moves through brain tissue and an indication of how insulated, or myelinated, a neuron’s axons are (higher myelination increases the speed of transmission between neurons and is associated with improved learning). The observational results show that fractional anisotropy is directly linked to a school’s national grade equivalence score, or a measure of how third graders from that school perform compared with the national average.

The paper fills a gap in learning science research. Although past studies have linked socioeconomic status to white matter development, they have not been able to focus in on specific attributes of a child’s development, such as the school they attend. Other research — including from Yeatman’s lab — has shown that educational interventions can lead to changes in white matter, but those have been relatively small-scale studies with participants who are not representative of the broader population. 

“This is one of the first cases where we can measure the thing we actually care about at the population level,” Yeatman said.

The authors also trained a deep learning model to conduct a global analysis of white matter, finding that children who attend schools with higher SEDA scores had brains that appeared developmentally “more mature” than their chronological age.

A measurable impact

The implications are “potentially game-changing,” said McCandliss, who directs the Stanford Educational Neuroscience Initiative (SENSI) and is a faculty affiliate of the Stanford Accelerator for Learning. 

“National discussions of the importance of elementary school quality have never before been framed in terms of having a measurable impact on physical brain development of our young children,” he said. “I think this changes the frame of the discussion and decision-making around the impact of inequity.”

The study was only possible because of the comprehensive data included in the ABCD Study and SEDA, the researchers said. McCandliss, an investigator in the ABCD Study, first approached the ABCD team leaders about linking the SEDA data with the ABCD data in 2018, and his SENSI team spent about two years creating the resulting “crosswalk.” 

McCandliss called the ABCD study a “dream come true,” and the linked data a way to “finally” answer “elusive questions about how inequities in educational opportunities may actually be changing the course of physical and functional brain development during the vulnerable elementary school years across the nation.”

To analyze the brain white matter from the MRI data included in the ABCD study, the authors used pyAFQ, an open-source software developed by Yeatman’s lab. “It was a really fruitful collaboration across both labs,” Roy said.

The authors hope their methods and the newly linked ABCD and SEDA data, which is now freely available to a community of registered researchers around the world, will allow other scholars to pursue their own ideas and hypotheses at the intersection of education and neuroscience.

Yeatman said the methods and data used in the study will allow researchers to be more precise about environmental factors linked to brain development and the mechanisms behind those connections.

“The environment influences brain development,” he said. “That’s obvious. But what about the environment influences brain development? This is the first step in actually unraveling that specificity.”