Racism and Poverty Can Change Brain Development of Black Children, Finds Black Harvard Researcher

Harvard researcher, Nathaniel Harnett analyzed nearly 10,000 MRI scans to find structural changes in the way children’s brains grew.

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.

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

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.

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.

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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.

According to CNN, Harnett said his team’s analysis directly points to the need for “large-scale structural and systemic change,” especially in policy.  “The adversity that these kids are exposed to, it impacts everyone, but it disproportionately burdens Black children in this case,” Harnett said.

Harnett explained that his research will continue, calling these just-published findings possibly just “the tip of the iceberg.” He told that it’s important to have this data about what is happening with children. That information can then help to shape the policy to address the problem.

“We know that the brain is plastic- it changes and it can be repaired,” Harnett said,referring to another study on outcomes when families with young children are given more money, “We recognize that some of these effects can actually be reversed. And the differences we’re seeing (in the MRI results) are significant, but they’re also relatively small.  If we can figure out how we can intervene early, how to get them resources while they’re still kids, we can mitigate these harmful effects.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated.

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