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

Nathaniel G. Harnett, Muriah D. Wheelock, Kimberly H. Wood, Adam M. Goodman, Sylvie Mrug, Marc N. Elliott, Mark A. Schuster, Susan Tortolero, David C. Knight

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish
Article number116086
StatePublished - Nov 15 2019


  • Brain imaging
  • Fear
  • Health disparities
  • Race differences
  • Social neuroscience
  • Stress


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