Prior research has shown that racial discrimination (RD) impacts activation in threat network regions, including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and middle occipital cortex during attention to threat-relevant stimuli. However, little is known about the biological mechanisms that may modulate these effects; inflammation may be a pathway linking RD and threat network activation. As such, the current study aimed to explore whether systemic inflammation, measured by C-reactive protein (CRP) levels, may moderate the relationship between RD and activation in the vmPFC and middle occipital cortex during attention to threat. Blood samples for inflammatory marker (CRP) assays were obtained from forty Black American women (mean [SD] age, 39.93 [9.97] years; range, 22–58 years) recruited from an ongoing trauma study; participants also viewed threat-relevant stimuli as part of an attention task during fMRI. We found that CRP moderated the relationship between RD and vmPFC activation during attention to threat, such that participants with relatively higher concentrations of CRP ( ≥ 23.97 mg/L) demonstrated significant positive associations between RD and vmPFC activation [β = 0.18, CI (0.04, 0.32), t = 2.65, p = 0.01]. No significant associations were observed for participants who showed moderate (10.89 mg/L) or low (0.20 mg/L) CRP concentrations. CRP did not moderate the relationship between RD and middle occipital cortex activation. Our data present a mechanism through which RD may influence immune system activation and, in turn, threat network activation. Inflammation may contribute to brain health vulnerabilities in Black Americans via its effects on threat circuits; this merits further investigation in large-scale studies.
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We thank the members of the Grady Trauma Project and the Fani Affective Neuroscience Laboratory for their assistance with data collection. We thank the participants of the Grady Trauma Project for their time and involvement in this study.
This work was primarily supported by National Institute of Mental Health (MH101380 to NF) and National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (AT011267 to NF). Support was also received from the Emory Medical Care Foundation, Emory University Research Council, American Psychological Association, Society for Clinical Neuropsychology, and the National Cancer Institute (CA220254-02S1).
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Elbasheir, A., Felger, J.C., Michopoulos, V. et al. C-reactive protein moderates associations between racial discrimination and ventromedial prefrontal cortex activation during attention to threat in Black American women. Neuropsychopharmacol. (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41386-023-01737-7