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Emory study examines link between racial discrimination and brain responses in Black women

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Jennifer Johnson McEwen

In an Emory Brain Health Center study conducted among Black women, those with more experiences of racial discrimination showed proportionately greater response in regions of the brain related to threat vigilance and regulation of threat response. Investigators say the connection could result in an increased risk for future brain health problems and race-related health disparities.

Researchers, led by clinical neuropsychologist Negar Fani, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, reported their findings in a cross-sectional study published Sept. 1 in JAMA Psychiatry.

Fani and colleagues conducted the five-year study among 55 Black women in the U.S. (mean age, 37.7 years) who were exposed to trauma. Evaluating responses from the Experiences of Discrimination Questionnaire and brain scanning, the study suggests racial discrimination may place a burden on areas of the brain associated with fear inhibition, emotion regulation and visual attention.

“These findings suggest that Black Americans who experience more discrimination may be more vigilant for future racist events. Further, a disproportionately high amount of brain power may go into regulating, or inhibiting, their emotional responses to these situations,” says Fani. “Over time, there may be a physical and emotional cost to overburdening these systems, which could result in an increased risk for later brain health problems and race-related health disparities.”

In addition to examining the neurobiological impact of race-related discrimination, Fani’s clinical work and research at the Grady Trauma Project investigates the intersection of emotion and cognition in trauma-exposed individuals and uses these findings to guide mechanistically-targeted interventions.