Features, Science

BU event reflects on neurological impact of racism on Black Americans

The brain’s prejudices and implicit bias have been studied at length. The effects of racism, however, have not.

mother and child holding a "please don't kill my son" sign at a breonna taylor protest
A demonstrator and her child at a protest against police brutality Sept. 26, 2020. Emory University assistant professor Negar Fari spoke about the effects of racism-related stress on Black Americans in a Friday webinar. HANNAH YOSHINAGA/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

Negar Fani, an assistant professor at Emory University, said the “perspective of the perpetrator” has already been studied extensively. Her research shows racism has long-term effects on Black Americans neurologically, including an “accelerated aging process.”

“We know very little about how racism-related events affect the brain and biological systems,” Fani said in an interview. “Without that compelling research, we’re not able to move policy forward and show these are things that have a very demonstrable effect on the brain and body.”

Fani presented a virtual seminar titled “The Impact of Racism-related Stress on Neurobiological Systems in Black Americans” Friday at Boston University. The event was hosted by BU’s Graduate Program for Neuroscience’s Committee on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice as part of the initiative’s seminar series.

Kelton Wilmerding is a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the neuroscience graduate program and a student representative on the GPN DEIJ Committee. He said in an interview the talk was part of the “Stress, Resilience and Society” seminar series, which highlights research about the stress of the human brain and how that relates to an understanding of society.

“The Stress, Resilience and Society seminar series … invites speakers from highly ranked research institutions to speak on their research,” he said, “but also how science can relate to our understanding of society and the way, as scientists, we need to be aware of the role that our research has within the broader social and cultural context in which we all work.”

The series hosted three lectures last semester, and Fani is the second speaker this Spring. Amanda Tarullo, an associate professor in BU’s psychological and brain sciences department, presented a seminar in March, and Andre Fenton from New York University will speak in May.

Wilmerding said he hopes these events help introduce an important, new type of research to the program and connect speakers to the students.

“We are scientists, but we also live in the broader context of society,” he said. “By inviting these speakers, I’m hopeful that our broader neuroscience community at Boston University will be able to become exposed to a larger cross section of the research.”

Fani said at the seminar symptoms of PTSD in many Black Americans due to “racial trauma” is one way systemic racism experienced in everyday life has lasting impacts.

About 64% of the study participants are low-income, she said at the event, and many showed signs of PTSD — which is likely due to racism they have experienced, according to Fani’s research.

She said racial discrimination in everday life tends to make study participants repress their own emotional responses.

“In terms of neurobiological systems, the kind of brain activation patterns that we see involve an increased engagement in regulatory areas of the brain,” she said, “the parts of the brain that inhibit fear responses or emotional responses, more generally.”

Luis Ramirez, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the GPN, is one of the student co-chairs of the program’s DEIJ committee. He said Fani’s research is investigating an area that has not been studied at length, which is important for the field.

He said the seminar series is playing a key role at a “community level” of fostering conversation between professors and students. Ramirez added it’s also an important way of capturing diverse voices.

“From the perspective of a student … you want to see an example of someone that looks like you,” he said, “just to say that, ‘I can make it in this field. I have an example of someone that looks like me, so I can be more confident that I have a place in this field.’”

Ramirez added he thinks the neuroscience profession needs to look critically at itself and its own diversity.

“What we do is inherently a human endeavor,” he said. “We’re trying to understand how the brain works, how it’s molded by the environment around us. It only makes sense that we dedicate some time to really explore who’s doing the neuroscience, who is it that gets to explore the brain and define certain things about it.”

The committee, he said, is “rooted in this question” of representation and is dedicated to addressing barriers underrepresented students face in the field.

As a researcher, Fani said her field has much progress to make in terms of addressing systemic racism in the industry and in society.

“We need to do a lot more work in the neuroscience community on experiences of racism from the perspective of those who have experienced it,” she said at the event, “starting with just a acceptance and validation of racism as a construct.”

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