How Racism Affects the Brain
Experiencing racism could trigger changes in the brain's white matter.
Posted July 25, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Racism takes a long-term toll on the mental and physical health of its victims.
- Experiencing racism changes the structure of white matter in the brain, new research suggests.
- Changes in the brain from the cumulative effects of racism affect the stress regulatory system and can lead to damaging behavioral choices.
Like sexual assault, bullying, and other violent or traumatic experiences, racial discrimination takes a long-term toll on its victim’s mental health. A new study from Emory University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences explains just how the stress of racism changes the brain and increases an individual’s risk of medical issues such as asthma, diabetes, and chronic pain.
The findings of this study go beyond the growing body of evidence that racism harms the health and overall well-being of the victim. This study describes what actually happens to the structure of white matter in the brains of those who experience racism and discrimination.
White matter takes up half the area of the brain and is made up of nerve cells and fibers that facilitate the transmission of information and communication from one region of the brain to another. It is called white matter because the myelin sheath that surrounds and protects nerve fiber bundles gives the tissue a white color. Damage to white matter stresses nerve cells and is associated with dementia, cognitive decline, and problems with memory, balance, mobility, and emotional regulation. Numerous studies have already established that racist experiences disrupt white matter in the brains of victims.
Using the results of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans from 79 African American and Black women, the Emory researchers analyzed specific nerve tracts, or bundles, that connect different regions of the brain. They found changes in these nerve tracts that were identified as a faulty brain mechanism potentially resulting in poor health outcomes.
Women who reported more racial discrimination appeared to have more severe structural disruptions in their white matter tracts than those who experienced less discrimination in their lives. The nerve tracts analyzed in this study are associated with emotional regulation and cognitive processing. The researchers theorize that racial stress, trauma, and discrimination affect brain white matter through the stress regulatory system, and can lead to behavior changes that increase risky activities, such as substance abuse and overeating.
In previous studies, the effects of racial discrimination in early childhood, both direct and indirect, have been shown to have a profoundly negative effect on a child’s social and emotional development, and lasting implications on their mental and physical health as they age. Besides any racism directly experienced by children, racism that has worsened the health of parents, family members, and others in a child’s environment can also have a direct negative impact on the child’s socioemotional health and development. In other words, the stress of experiencing racism on a mother or father can lead to damaging parenting choices and behaviors that have a severe negative effect on the mental and physical well-being of their infants and children.
There is also emerging scientific evidence likening the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral symptoms of racial trauma to those of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), most often experienced by war veterans; victims of physical, sexual, or other types of abuse; and others who have gone through serious life disasters, such as accidents. The more studies performed on the effects of the cumulative and ongoing practice of racial discrimination on people of color, the more researchers will be able to develop appropriate assessment tools and recommend treatments geared specifically to the trauma and health outcomes of experienced racism.
Onyebuchi Okeke, Aziz Elbasheir, Sierra Carter, Abigail Powers, Yara Mekawi, Charles F. Gillespie, Ann Schwartz, Bekh Bradley, Negar Fani. Indirect Effects of Racial Discrimination on Health Outcomes Through Prefrontal Cortical White Matter Integrity. Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, 2022; DOI: 10.1016/j.bpsc.2022.05.004
Berry OO, Tobon AL, Nijoroge WFM. Social Determinants of Health: the Impact of Racism on Early Childhood Mental Health. Current Psychiatry Reports. March 12, 2021; 23
Becares L, Naroo J, Kelly Y. A longitudinal examination of maternal, family, and area-level experiences of racism on children’s socioemotional development: Patterns and possible explanations. Social Science & Medicine. October 2015. 142: 128-135
Williams MT, Osman M, Gran-Ruaz S, Lopez J. Intersection of racism and PTSD: Assessment and treatment of racial stress and trauma. Curt Treat Options Psych. 2021; 8: 167-185.