Brain scans of black women experiencing racism show trauma-like effects, putting them at higher risk for future health problems

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The research brief is a brief overview of interesting academic work.

The big idea

Black women who have experienced more racism throughout their lives have stronger brain responses to the threat, which can adversely affect their long-term health, according to a new study I conducted with a clinical neuropsychologist Negar Fani and other colleagues.

I am part of a Research Team who, for more than 15 years, has studied the ways in which the stress of trauma exposure can affect the mind and body. In our recent study, we took a closer look at a stressor that black Americans disproportionately face in the United States: racism.

My colleagues and I conducted research with 55 black women who reported how exposed they had been to traumatic experiences, such as childhood abuse and physical or sexual violence, and racial discrimination, suffering unfair treatment on the basis of race or ethnicity.

We asked them to focus on a task that required attention while simultaneously viewing stressful images. We used Functional MRI observe their brain activity during this period.

We found that black women who reported more experiences of racial discrimination had more response activity in regions of the brain that are associated with vigilance and monitoring for threats – that is, middle occipital cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Their reactions were beyond the response caused by traumatic experiences unrelated to racism. Our research suggests that racism has had a traumatic effect on the health of black women; Listening to the threat of racism on a regular basis can tax important bodily regulatory tools and worsen brain health.

Other trauma studies show that this type of continued threat response may increase the risk of further mental health disorders and future brain health problems.

Why is this important

Black Americans continue to suffer from health disparities, including being at a disproportionate level greater risk of stroke, cognitive decline and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, compared to white Americans. Although research has consistently shown that the chronic stress from racism can penetrate under the skin and leave a biological residue of lasting health consequences For black Americans over time, little research has explored the impact of racism on brain function and health.

There is a large and well-established history of research linking traumatic experiences, such as childhood abuse, physical assault, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, to changes in how the brain works which lead to negative health effects. Our study is one of the first to examine how the brain might respond to experiences of racial discrimination beyond other traumatic stressors.

Black women can be particularly vigilant in the face of threats within their environment as they have had to adapt to living in societal spaces that perpetuate racism. Knowing this could be a step forward in research and advocacy efforts to reduce health inequalities.

What is not yet known

Our research results show that black racism experiences can influence the way the brain responds and adapts, which deserves more research attention. My colleagues and I believe that neurobiological research is only just beginning to adequately study the effect of racism on the health disparities observed in this population. Our study provides preliminary insight into the need to consider the traumatic nature of racism in black lives.

More research is needed at all stages of life, including childhood, to understand how and when some black people develop very high alertness to the threats of racial discrimination, and how this affects their health.

And after

I plan to do more research inspired by the results of this study.

Fear puts a strain on the body, but it can also be used for protection. I hope I have a better understanding of the costs and benefits of fear in the face of threats in a context of chronic oppression for some black Americans.

I’m also interested in how black people describe, experience, and deal with potential threats when the threat comes from individuals in positions of power who are supposed to protect and serve.


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