Racial Discrimination and White Matter Microstructure in Trauma-Exposed Black Women

Biol Psychiatry. 2022 Feb 1;91(3):254-261. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2021.08.011. Epub 2021 Aug 24.


Background: Experiences of racial discrimination are linked to a range of negative brain health outcomes, but little is known about how these experiences impact neural architecture, including white matter microstructure, which may partially mediate these outcomes. Our goal was to examine associations between racially discriminatory experiences and white matter structural integrity in a sample of Black American women.

Methods: We recruited 116 Black American women as part of a long-standing study of trauma. Participants completed assessments of racial discrimination, trauma exposure, and posttraumatic stress disorder and underwent diffusion tensor imaging. Fractional anisotropy and mean diffusivity values were extracted from major white matter tracts throughout the brain.

Results: Experiences of racial discrimination were associated with significantly lower fractional anisotropy in multiple white matter tracts, including the corpus callosum, cingulum, and superior longitudinal fasciculus (ps < .004), even after accounting for variance associated with trauma, posttraumatic stress disorder, and demographic- and scanner-related factors.

Conclusions: These findings suggest that experiences of racial discrimination are independently related to decrements in white matter microarchitecture throughout the brain. In individuals who have experienced other types of adversity, racial discrimination clearly has additive and distinctive deleterious effects on white matter structure. Our findings suggest a pathway through which racial discrimination can contribute to brain health disparities in Black Americans; the deleterious contributions of racial discrimination on the microstructure of major white matter pathways may increase vulnerability for the development of neurodegenerative disorders as well as the development of mental health problems.

Keywords: Black American; Diffusion tensor imaging; Racial discrimination; Trauma; White matter.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anisotropy
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Diffusion Tensor Imaging
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Nerve Net
  • Racism*
  • White Matter* / diagnostic imaging