Digital Sciences for Society - foto Maurice van den Bosch

From impoverished to enriched brains: a lifespan perspective on the link between poverty, nutrition, cognitive functioning and underlying brain networks

Using digital sciences to lay a foundation for effective interventions and policies aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty

The project in short:

Poverty is a pressing global issue with detrimental, far-reaching consequences for individuals worldwide, including the Netherlands. It leads to shorter lifespans, poorer physical and mental health, poorer social participation and reduced cognitive abilities. These reductions in cognitive performance have long-term implications for education, employment and socioeconomic mobility.

The aim of this research project is to uncover how poverty affects cognitive processes and life and unveil the underlying neural mechanisms by examining alterations in brain networks related to various poverty indicators, including malnutrition, from a lifespan perspective. Using digital science tools on large-scale databases, the goal is to advance knowledge, promote equitable opportunities and contribute to breaking the cycle of poverty.

Project objectives

Through innovative approaches, leveraging digital sciences methods and fostering multidisciplinary collaboration, the project consortium seeks to elucidate the complex relationships between poverty, malnutrition, cognitive functioning and underlying brain networks, laying a foundation for effective interventions and policies to address poverty-related challenges.

Additional goals of the project are:

  1. Reflecting on the (historical) view on poverty in general and human beings in poverty as related to market and morality, fostering critical discussions on the use of digital sciences in poverty research;
  2. Providing data collection recommendations, enabling generalizations to other populations, potentially leading to new interventions in diverse contexts;
  3. Contributing to advancing machine learning, explainable AI methods and statistical techniques, enhancing these fields on a fundamental and applicable level and amplifying the impact of digital sciences in general;
  4. Promoting a holistic understanding of the consequences of digitization, prioritizing human-centered approaches to more harmoniously and inclusively integrate digital sciences into society.

Ultimately, this project seeks to not only tackle the challenges of poverty but also enhance the impact of digital sciences for the betterment of society as a whole.

Potential impact

Overall, the project aims to advance knowledge on the complex relationships between poverty, malnutrition, cognitive functioning and underlying brain networks with the ultimate aim to disrupt the cycle of poverty. By understanding the underlying neural mechanisms of poverty, policymakers, industries and communities can work together to break the spiral of negative influences of poverty on the brain, cognition and society, resulting in a positive impact on mental and physical health, inclusion and cohesion. This collaborative effort will enable the implementation of effective interventions and policies that promote positive change.

More specifically, the desired changes following this research project are the following:

  • A first desired change is to create a culture that empathizes with and supports individuals living in poverty, breaking the stigma associated with poverty. Increased insight into the link between poverty and brain structure, function and development should lead to a challenge of the meritocratic beliefs and an increase in public engagement and support for policies addressing poverty and its effect on the brain.
  • A second desired change is to alleviate poverty by redesigning policies that address the root causes of poverty. The current project will add more clear and consistent knowledge on the relationships between poverty-related variables and brain anatomy and brain function in children, adolescents and adults, and will establish a connection between these changes and cognitive and behavioral outcomes. Insight into the determining factors of poverty and nutrition-related brain alterations will provide tools for policy makers to develop and implement targeted interventions early in the chain.
  • A third desired change is to increase trust in digital sciences among people in poverty, empowering them to engage with technology, access digital resources and take advantage of the opportunities it offers them. Applying Explainable AI techniques in the research will demystify AI by making the predictions made by AI algorithms more transparent and understandable to everyone, including individuals in poverty. An increased comprehension of how the AI systems arrive at their conclusions should lead to increased trust and acceptance.
  • The research will also provide new statistical methodology and machine learning techniques for studying complex brain networks. The fourth desired change is therefore the application of these newly developed methods and techniques for highly complex constructs in a wide variety of domains, for instance, to simulate realistic longitudinal trajectories from available cross-sectional data while considering the presence of latent factors unobservable to researchers. An additional crucial transformation the project aspires to achieve pertains to the perspective with which policymakers, industries, and general society approach the application of digital sciences to address social issues. The project aims to introduce a refined and broadened frame of reference that allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the implications of digitization. This framework will enable to accurately assess the impact of digital advancements on interpersonal relationships and individual well-being. By adopting this refined frame of reference, the project seeks to foster a paradigm shift in which the individual becomes the focal point when utilizing digital sciences. Ultimately, the goal is to establish a more harmonious and inclusive integration of digital sciences into society, where the individual remains central and technology serves as a facilitator.


The project will run from September 2023 – December 2027.

Multidisciplinary project consortium

Poverty is much more than an economic issue: it is a wicked problem encompassing behavioral, social, economic and ethical/philosophical dimensions. To gain a comprehensive understanding of the intricate neural mechanisms underlying a multifaceted problem like poverty, the utilization of large-scale databases and digital sciences tools becomes essential. To achieve the project’s objectives, it is imperative for experts from different disciplines to collaborate closely. The project consortium includes experts from the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, the School of Economics and Management, the School of Catholic Theology, and the School of Humanities and Digital Sciences:

  • Lead applicant Prof. dr. Margriet Sitskoorn, Full Professor at the Department of Cognitive Neuropsychology, has expertise in neuroplasticity of the brain and its connection to cognitive performance.
  • Dr. Wouter De Baene, Associate Professor at the Department of Cognitive Neuropsychology, has expertise in studying the structural and functional connectome and its relationship with cognitive performance.
  • Dr. Marion van den Heuvel, Assistant Professor at the Department of Cognitive Neuropsychology, specializes in studying brain development in children.
  • The work of Dr. Karin Gehring, Researcher at the Department of Cognitive Neuropsychology, focuses on cognitive functioning (including longitudinal perspectives), intervention studies, and developing eHealth applications including dashboards.
  • Prof. dr. ir. Hein Fleuren, Full Professor at the Department of Econometrics and Operations Research & Director of the Zero Hunger Lab, specializes in the application of business analytics and data science techniques in practical contexts. He has applied various analytics techniques, especially optimization and simulation techniques, to problems in logistics (commercial as well as humanitarian) and in the field of nutrition.
  • Dr. Pavel Cizek, Associate Professor at the Department of Econometrics and Operations Research, has experience with machine-learning methods applied in statistics and econometrics, simulation-based methods and panel data analysis.
  • Prof. dr. Paul van Geest, Full Professor at the Tilburg School of Catholic Theology, specializes in investigating the implicit perspectives on the human being that underly specific theories, models or strategies.
  • Dr. Çiçek Güven, Assistant Professor at the Department of Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence, brings expertise in the application of machine learning, network analysis and (learning from) graph structured data.

Importantly, to generate truly relevant results, it is crucial to also incorporate the perspectives of the experts by experience, namely people living in poverty. To achieve this, the MOM (Social Development Agency, including 14 partners) is part of the consortium, representing these crucial stakeholders. The MOM and all associated civil society organizations have been actively engaged for years in combating poverty and unemployment, promoting health and better education. They have been doing this in close collaboration with and from the perspective of the local residents. Through their close contact with the residents, they will be able to incorporate the view of the local people living in poverty (through enabling setting up focus groups and interviews) into the design of the research by pointing to key variables related to poverty. Furthermore, they will play a pivotal role in the dissemination of the research findings to these stakeholders.

This project is funded by Tilburg University’s Digital Sciences for Society program and co-funded by the Zero Poverty lab.

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