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MRI scans show that racism and poverty are likely to alter Black children’s brains

According to new research, Black children in the United States are more likely than White children to face childhood adversity, and these disparities are reflected in changes to parts of the brain linked to psychiatric diseases such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The findings, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, adversity may act as a toxic stressor to regions of the brain associated with threat processing, and that this exposure is disproportionately seen in Black children.

Researchers analyzed surveys and MRI brain scans of more than 7,300 White children and nearly 1,800 Black children aged 9 and 10.

The study found that White children’s parents were three times more likely than those of Black children to be currently employed.

White children’s parents had a higher level of education and a higher family income than Black children’s parents.

“Our research provides substantial evidence of the effects structural racism can have on a child’s developing brain, and these small differences may be meaningful for their mental health and well-being through adulthood.”

Study lead, Nathaniel G. Harnett, PhD, who is assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, wrote.

Roughly 75 percent of White parents had a college degree, compared to nearly 41 percent of Black parents, and an estimated 88 percent of white parents earned $35,000 or more per year, versus about 47% of Black parents.

When compared to Black children, white children experienced less family conflict, less material hardship, less neighborhood disadvantage, and fewer traumatic events.

When looking at the MRI data, experiencing childhood adversity was linked to lower gray matter brain volume in the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex— all effects that were more commonly seen in Black children.

The amygdala is involved in fear response learning, the hippocampus in memory formation, and the prefrontal cortex in regulating the emotional and threat response to fear.

The authors went on to say that their findings refute the pseudoscientific myth that there are inherent racial differences in the brain, instead they stress the role played by adversity from structural racism.

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Written by Jamil Johnson