Black Women Who “Hunker Down” in High Violence Areas Have Altered Genes in Immune Cells

The chronic stress of living in neighborhoods with high rates of violence and poverty alters gene activity in immune cells, according to a new study of low-income single Black mothers on the South Side of Chicago conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Kentucky and the University of California, Los Angeles.

The changes in stress-related gene expression reflect the body’s “hunker down” response to long-term threat, a physiological strategy for lying low and considering new actions rather than launching an immediate “fight-or-flight” response. This has implications for health outcomes in communities of color and other marginalized populations.

“The question we asked is, how does stress get under the skin to affect health and wellness? We wanted to hear the stories of low-income single Black mothers on the South Side of Chicago and really try to understand what it’s like to live in neighborhoods with high levels of violence and how it affects these women,” said co-author Ruby Mendenhall a professor of African American studies and sociology, and the assistant dean for diversity and democratization of health innovation the College of Medicine at the University of Illinois.

Researchers surveyed and interviewed women from high-violence neighborhoods. They shared stories, filled out stress assessments and gave blood samples. From the women’s accounts and surveys, as well as from police records of violent crime, the researchers measured levels of stress related to racism, poverty, and neighborhood violence. Then, the researchers studied how genes related to stress and immunity were expressed in white blood cells, called leukocytes, found in the participants’ blood samples.

“Leukocytes are part of the immune system. They become activated to help fight disease and infection, and also respond to certain stress hormones, and that means their genes are good indicators for the effects of stress on health and well-being,” said study co-author Gene Robinson, a professor of entomology at the University of Illinois.

The study, “Transcriptomic Analyses of Black Women in Neighborhoods With High Levels of Violence,” was published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. It may be accessed here.

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  1. Are you fricking kidding me! I find it very suspect and interesting they have the Chutzpah to have the photo (e.g., the Lone Black woman) of the person who contextually contributed the least. Even more troubling is that we have an Asian doctoral student solidifying and perpetuating negative stereotypes about Black American women with this sub-par research. Ms. Lee should be ashamed because she and those other so-called academic would never never make similar claims such as “White women who live in White racist enclaves or areas with a high concentration of oxycontin have ‘altered the genes in immune cells”. I wonder why!

  2. The research seems plausible. There are countless numbers of Black people who suffer from violence-related PTSD in low-income Black neighborhoods. Why is it far-fetched to believe that such experiences could cause harmful physical changes? The political motivations behind the research may be questionable but given the high levels of violence amongst Blacks relative to every other race of people in the United States it certainly seems believable.

    • I certainly hope you don’t work in academia because I feel sorry for your students on numerous levels for supporting this inherently racist so-called study. Case in point, I can easily say that “countless numbers of Whites, Asians, and Latinos who live in areas with high concentration in the usage of alcohols, prescription drugs, and incest” have altered their genes in immune cells. David, you’re the product of years of neoliberal miseducation.

  3. Dr. Ruby Mendenhall and her colleagues address their thoughtful care in examining the intersectionality of race, gender, and class in a previous article noted below. (I would also caution readers not to be too presumptuous about determining author contributions by name order alone. Some scientific fields list the primary author last.)

    Ruby Mendenhall 1*, Loren Henderson 2, Barbara Scott 3, Lisa Butler 4, Kedir N. Turi 5, Andrew Greenlee 6, Gene E. Robinson 7, Brent W. Roberts 8, Sandra L. Rodriguez-Zas 9, James E. Brooks 10, Christy L. Lleras 11. 1 Department of Sociology, African American Studies & Carle Illinois College of Medicine, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA . 2 Department of Sociology and …

    • Hey Tondra,

      You need to work on your reading comprehension skills immediately. I never questioned their credentials. You are aware the having a PhD, MD, JD, etc. does not imply such persons are infallible or know everything. When in fact they know only a miniscule amount in a given area. That said, for people such as yourself Tondra (what type of name is that by the way!) need to recognize that NO ONE research is above being critiqued. How do you like them apples?

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