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2017 Grants - Schon
Perceived Racism as a Chronic Stressor and Cognition in Black Seniors
Karin Schon, Ph.D.
Boston University Medical Campus
2017 Alzheimer's Association Research Grant (AARG)
How does racial discrimination change brain function and structure in ways that may increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease?
In the United States, people of African ancestry have a higher risk of Alzheimer's disease than people of European ancestry. The explanation for this higher risk is not well understood. People of African ancestry are a minority group on the U.S. mainland and frequently experience racial discrimination. Racial discrimination has been shown to be a source of chronic stress.
Chronic stress has physical effects on the human body, such as increasing levels of the hormone, cortisol, as well as causing measurable changes in brain structure. One area of the brain known to be negatively affected by chronic stress is the hippocampus. The hippocampus is essential for learning and memory, and it is one of the brain regions affected in the earliest stages of Alzheimer's disease.
Karin Schon, Ph.D., and colleagues have proposed a series of studies to explore how chronic stress arising from racism affects brain structure and function in people of African ancestry. In the first series of studies, Dr. Schon's team will use previously validated ways to measure a person's perceptions of racism in a group of older African-Americans living in Boston. The participants in this study are all part of an existing study, so the researchers will also have access to existing data on cortisol levels, tests of brain function, and brain images. The researchers will compare how perceptions of racism are related to those measures.
In the second series of studies, Dr. Schon's team will compare brain function and structure and cortisol levels of African-Americans with the same measurements from a group of people of African ancestry living in the Virgin Islands. On those islands, people of African ancestry represent the racial majority and presumably encounter less racial discrimination at an individual level.
This study is intended to be a pilot study because its goal is to generate important data and ideas about what needs to be studied in more detail during subsequent research projects. The research will generate important hypotheses about the role of racial discrimination in inducing some of the brain changes associated with early Alzheimer's disease.