Imaging Social and Environmental Factors as Modulators of Brain Dysfunction: Time to Focus on Developing Non-Western Societies

Biol Psychiatry Cogn Neurosci Neuroimaging. 2019 Jan;4(1):8-15. doi: 10.1016/j.bpsc.2018.09.005. Epub 2018 Sep 25.


Social and environmental factors are known risk factors and modulators of mental health disorders. We here conducted a nonsystematic review of the neuroimaging literature studying the effects of poverty, urbanicity, and community violence, highlighting the opportunities of studying non-Western developing societies such as those in Latin America. Social and environmental factors in these communities are widespread and have a large magnitude, as well as an unequal distribution, providing a good opportunity for their characterization. Studying the effect of poverty in these settings could help to explore the brain effect of economic improvements, disentangle the effect of absolute and relative poverty, and characterize the modulating impact of poverty on the underlying biology of mental health disorders. Exploring urbanicity effects in highly unequal cities could help identify the specific factors that modulate this effect as well as examine a possible dose-response effect by studying megacities. Studying brain changes in those living among violence, which is particularly high in places such as Latin America, could help to characterize the interplay between brain predisposition and exposure to violence. Furthermore, exploring the brain in an adverse environment should shed light on the mechanisms underlying resilience. We finally provide examples of two methodological approaches that could contribute to this field, namely a big cohort study in the developing world and a consortium-based meta-analytic approach, and argue about the potential translational value of this research on the development of effective social policies and successful personalized medicine in disadvantaged societies.

Keywords: Developing world; Neuroimaging; Poverty; Psychiatric disorders; Urbanicity; Violence.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Developing Countries
  • Environment*
  • Humans
  • Latin America
  • Neuroimaging*
  • Poverty
  • Resilience, Psychological
  • Social Environment*
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Urban Population
  • Violence