Study Analyzes Effect of Racial Discrimination on Black Adolescent Brain Activity

A new study led by researchers at the University of Georgia has analyzed the effect of Black adolescents’ exposure to negative stimuli on their brain activity, revealing a high risk for developing depression and anxiety.

For their study, the authors recruited a sample of nearly 1,600 Black American adolescents to investigate the participants’ amygdala activity when exposed to negative stimuli. The amygdala is the emotional response center in the brain, and its activity can vary depending on each individual’s response to certain positive, neutral, or negative scenarios.

The authors used functional MRIs to record the participants’ amygdala activity when shown pictures of either neutral or negative facial expressions, thereby understanding how their brain functions when exposed to a negative experience, such as racism or discrimination. In addition to the MRI scans, the participants answered a survey regarding their internal emotions, such as feeling scared or sad, and external responses to stress, such as acting out or arguing.

The results found a correlation between participants whose amygdala “shut down” in response to negative images and increased levels of internal stress. Interestingly, about 20 percent of these participants reported high levels of marginalization, but smaller levels of externalized symptoms.

The authors write that their “findings indicate that while brain deactivation patterns in the amygdala can help youths regulate problematic behaviors, this regulation comes with an emotional mental health cost. Future research should explore which regions might contribute to the amygdalar patterns identified in this study.”

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