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Research in deprivation neuroscience has grown rapidly over the past 15 years. Studies in this field examine brain structure and function of individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many attempt to link brain characteristics to behavioral and cognitive deficits found more commonly in deprived populations.

The article assesses claims by neuroscientists and policy-oriented commentators that deprivation neuroscience can help generate more effective strategies for addressing poverty and deprivation. It concludes that research in this field has no unique practical payoff for reducing or alleviating poverty and its effects, over and above what is known or can be discovered from behavioral science and ordinary methods of social observation. First, research typically conducted in neuroscience does not, and generally cannot, identify innate versus environmental causes of particular brain characteristics. The work thus cannot determine whether or to what extent particular neurological and behavioral deficits can be avoided by alleviating social deprivation. Second, even apart from problems with disentangling causation, knowledge of brain mechanisms associated with deprivation yields no special insights over and above those from research in other fields, on how to prevent, attenuate, or cure the putative harms of social deprivation. Addressing poverty and its effects depends on changing real-world behaviors, and is limited by the constraints – ethical, practical, and political – on manipulating these. Improvements in individual functioning are the ultimate test of efficacy, and behavioral studies are thus an indispensable guide to policy. Because neuroscience does not teach us how to alleviate disadvantage and its supposed effects, scholars, scientists, and journalists should stop claiming otherwise.


Jurimetrics, Vol. 57, forthcoming.