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"A Bio-Cultural Approach to Racial Disparities in Health: Genetics, Epigenetics, and the Biological Embedding of Psychosocial Stress" by Amy Non

Friday, February 10, 2012
12:00 AM
411 West Hall

In recent decades, researchers from across disciplines have struggled to identify the root causes behind racial disparities in health. While biomedical researchers often test hypotheses about underlying genetic predispositions for disease, social scientists more often focus on social-environmental factors, such as socioeconomic status or perceived psychosocial stress. Few researchers test these competing genetic and sociocultural hypotheses together.
In recent decades, researchers from across disciplines have struggled to identify the root causes behind racial disparities in health. While biomedical researchers often test hypotheses about underlying genetic predispositions for disease, social scientists more often focus on social-environmental factors, such as socioeconomic status or perceived psychosocial stress. Few researchers test these competing genetic and sociocultural hypotheses together. In collaborative research with Drs. Lance Gravlee and Connie Mulligan, we have integrated ethnographic, genetic, and epidemiological data to isolate and compare the health effects of genetic and social classifications of race in Puerto Rico. We found that social classification better predicts blood pressure than does genetic ancestry. These results imply that other mechanisms beyond genetics may explain racial disparities in health. A hypothesis of growing interest in anthropology and public health suggests that social experiences can become biologically embedded, especially early in development, to affect health throughout the lifecourse. In one line of my current research, I am exploring epigenetic modifications in early life, to test if adverse exposures in utero may alter genomic structure leading to long-term consequences for adult health. In a collaborative research project at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, we are currently analyzing genome-wide patterns of DNA methylation in the cord blood of babies born in Boston, MA to mothers with depression and on antidepressants during pregnancy. In a second line of research, I am investigating variation in other biomarkers of health, including markers of endothelial function and inflammation in response to different types of psychosocial stressors in large ongoing cohort studies. Results from both lines of research imply that a more nuanced view of biology, beyond genetics, will be required to ultimately understand racial disparities in health.