Negative life experiences contribute to racial differences in the neural response to threat

Academic Article


  • Threat-related emotional function is supported by a neural circuit that includes the prefrontal cortex (PFC), hippocampus, and amygdala. The function of this neural circuit is altered by negative life experiences, which can potentially affect threat-related emotional processes. Notably, Black-American individuals disproportionately endure negative life experiences compared to White-American individuals. However, the relationships among negative life experiences, race, and the neural substrates that support threat-related emotional function remains unclear. Therefore, the current study investigated whether the brain function that supports threat-related emotional processes varies with racial differences in negative life experiences. In the present study, adolescent violence exposure, family income, and neighborhood disadvantage were measured prospectively (i.e., at 11–19 years of age) for Black-American and White-American volunteers. Participants then, as young adults (i.e., 18–23 years of age), completed a Pavlovian fear conditioning task during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Cued and non-cued threats were presented during the conditioning task and behavioral (threat expectancy) and psychophysiological responses (skin conductance response; SCR) were recorded simultaneously with fMRI. Racial differences were observed in neural (fMRI activity), behavioral (threat expectancy), and psychophysiological (SCR) responses to threat. These threat-elicited responses also varied with negative life experiences (violence exposure, family income, and neighborhood disadvantage). Notably, racial differences in brain activity to threat were smaller after accounting for negative life experiences. The present findings suggest that racial differences in the neural and behavioral response to threat are due, in part, to exposure to negative life experiences and may provide new insight into the mechanisms underlying racial disparities in mental health.
  • Published In

  • NeuroImage  Journal
  • Digital Object Identifier (doi)

    Author List

  • Harnett NG; Wheelock MD; Wood KH; Goodman AM; Mrug S; Elliott MN; Schuster MA; Tortolero S; Knight DC
  • Volume

  • 202