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Neural impacts of stigma, racism, and discrimination

      Abstract

      Racism is a chronic stressor fueled by stigma that can result in significant distress and dysfunction as well as negatively affect emotions, behavior, quality of life, and brain health. The effects of stigma and discrimination emerge early in life, with long-term consequences. The present review sought to use neuroscience research to describe how stigma, racism, and discrimination can impact the brain and mental health. Societal stigmas may be ‘encoded’ by associative fear learning and pattern completion networks, and experiences of racial discrimination may similarly affect threat-responsive regions and circuits. Race-related differences in brain function and structure supporting threat circuitry are largely attenuated when negative life experiences and discrimination are taken into account. Downstream, chronic activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic-adrenal medullary (SAM) axis in the context of discrimination and stigma can contribute to physical health disparities in minoritized and marginalized groups. Finally, we discuss models that provide a framework for interventions and societal-level strategies across ecological systems to build resilience and foster posttraumatic growth.

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