Racial discrimination affects brain microstructure and increases risk for health disorders

Study shows stress of discrimination affects the brain in a way that may enhance the risk for negative health outcomes

A new study shows that the experience of racial discrimination affects the microstructure of the brain and increases the risk for health disorders.

The study, from Emory University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, appears in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.

The researchers say they see a connection between how racist experiences may increase the risk of health problems via effects on select stress-sensitive brain pathways. Researchers recruited 79 Black women and clinically assessed them for trauma and for medical disorders ranging from asthma to diabetes to chronic pain. Over half the women reported severe economic disadvantage, with a household income under $1,000 per month, for which the researchers controlled in their analysis.

The woman also underwent a brain scan to measure the brain’s fractional anisotropy (FA), a reflection of water movement through brain white matter – specifically the long, fatty tracts that connect distant regions of the brain.

The researchers found that women who experienced more racial discrimination displayed lower FA in select brain tracts. In addition, the structural integrity of two specific tracts mediated the relationship between racial discrimination and medical disorders in these women.

The authors hypothesize that the burden of trauma and racial discrimination may affect brain matter integrity through the stress system. The affected tracts are involved in emotional regulation and cognitive processes, which may in turn lead to behavioral changes, such as increased consumption of drugs or foods, that increase risk for health conditions.