Socioeconomic disadvantage confers risk for aspects of ill health that may be mediated by systemic inflammatory influences on the integrity of distributed brain networks. Following this hypothesis, we tested whether socioeconomic disadvantage related to the structural integrity of white matter tracts connecting brain regions of distributed networks, and whether such a relationship would be mediated by anthropometric, behavioral, and molecular risk factors associated with systemic inflammation. Otherwise healthy adults (N= 155, aged 30-50 years, 78 men) completed protocols assessing multilevel indicators of socioeconomic position (SEP), anthropometric and behavioral measures of adiposity and cigarette smoking, circulating levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), and white matter integrity by diffusion tensor imaging. Mediation modeling was used to test associations between SEP indicators and measures of white matter tract integrity, as well as indirect mediating paths. Measures of tract integrity followed a socioeconomic gradient: individuals completing more schooling, earning higher incomes, and residing in advantaged neighborhoods exhibited increases in white matter fractional anisotropy and decreases in radial diffusivity, relative to disadvantaged individuals. Moreover, analysis of indirect paths showed that adiposity, cigarette smoking, and CRP partially mediated these effects. Socioeconomic inequalities may relate to diverse health disparities via inflammatory pathways impacting the structural integrity of brain networks.
Keywords: diffusion tensor imaging; inflammation; social health disparities; socioeconomic inequality; stress; white matter fractional anisotropy.