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Children's future success predicted by brain tests at age of three

Article By: Melissa McAlees, News Editor

A child’s chance of success in later life can be predicted by brain tests at the age of three, new research suggests.

According to a study published in the journal, Nature Human Behaviour, low cognitive test scores indicate less developed brains, possibly caused by “too little stimulation” in early life.

Researchers suggest these children “are more likely to become criminals, dependent on welfare or chronically ill unless they are given support later on.”

The study followed the progress of 1,000 children born in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1972-73, from birth to midlife. At age three, each child took part in a 45-minute paediatric examination that included a neurological evaluation and assessments of verbal comprehension, language development, motor skills, and social behaviour.

The examiners (having no previous knowledge of the child) then rated each child’s frustration, tolerance, resistance, restlessness, impulsiveness and lack of persistence in reaching goals.

Those who had low test scores for language, behavioural, movement and cognitive skills went on to account for more than 80 per cent of crimes, required 78 per cent of prescriptions and received 66 per cent of social welfare payments in adulthood. They were also more likely to smoke, be obese and take prescription drugs.

Study director Professor Richie Poulton, said: “We also found that members of this group tended to have grown up in more socioeconomically deprived environments, experienced child maltreatment, scored poorly on childhood IQ tests and exhibited low childhood self-control."

He added: “Those working in social services have long observed that some individuals use more than their share of services, but this is the first evidence that the same group of individuals feature in multiple service sectors and that they can be identified as young children, with reasonable accuracy.”

The findings, while controversial for indicating that someone’s life path is set in their early years, suggests these “at-risk children” should be identified and supported early on.

Professor Terrie Moffitt of King’s College and Duke University in North Carolina, said: “About 20 per cent of the population is using the lion’s share of a wide array of public services. The same people use most of the NHS, the criminal courts, the claims for disabling injury, pharmaceutical prescriptions and social welfare benefits.

“But we went further to look back into the childhoods of the people in our study, and we found that this 20 per cent began their lives with mild problems with brain function and brain health when they were very small children, at the age of three.”

She added: “It gives you a feeling of compassion for these people, as opposed to a feeling of blame.”

The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit received funding for the study from the Health Research Council of New Zealand and the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

For more information on the study go to:


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