Structural inequities contribute to racial/ethnic differences in neurophysiological tone, but not threat reactivity, after trauma exposure

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Molecular psychiatry


Considerable racial/ethnic disparities persist in exposure to life stressors and socioeconomic resources that can directly affect threat neurocircuitry, particularly the amygdala, that partially mediates susceptibility to adverse posttraumatic outcomes. Limited work to date, however, has investigated potential racial/ethnic variability in amygdala reactivity or connectivity that may in turn be related to outcomes such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Participants from the AURORA study (n = 283), a multisite longitudinal study of trauma outcomes, completed functional magnetic resonance imaging and psychophysiology within approximately two-weeks of trauma exposure. Seed-based amygdala connectivity and amygdala reactivity during passive viewing of fearful and neutral faces were assessed during fMRI. Physiological activity was assessed during Pavlovian threat conditioning. Participants also reported the severity of posttraumatic symptoms 3 and 6 months after trauma. Black individuals showed lower baseline skin conductance levels and startle compared to White individuals, but no differences were observed in physiological reactions to threat. Further, Hispanic and Black participants showed greater amygdala connectivity to regions including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (PFC), dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, insula, and cerebellum compared to White participants. No differences were observed in amygdala reactivity to threat. Amygdala connectivity was associated with 3-month PTSD symptoms, but the associations differed by racial/ethnic group and were partly driven by group differences in structural inequities. The present findings suggest variability in tonic neurophysiological arousal in the early aftermath of trauma between racial/ethnic groups, driven by structural inequality, impacts neural processes that mediate susceptibility to later PTSD symptoms.

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ePub ahead of print