It boosted stress genes “hunker down” in women living in violent neighborhoods

Image source: L. Brian Stauffer

Champaign, Illinois. Chronic stress caused by living in neighborhoods with high rates of violence and poverty alters gene activity in immune cells, according to a new study of low-income single black mothers in the South Side of Chicago.

Changes in gene expression associated with stress reflect the body’s response to “shelter” to a long-term threat, which is a physiological strategy to lie down at a low level and think of new actions rather than triggering an immediate “fight-or-flight” response. This has implications for health outcomes in communities of color and other marginalized populations, researchers at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and collaborators at the University of Kentucky and University of California at Los Angeles said. The researchers published the study in the journal Neuroendocrinology.

“The question we asked is, How does subcutaneous stress affect health and wellness? We wanted to hear the stories of low-income black single mothers on the South Side of Chicago and really try to understand what it is like to live in neighborhoods with high levels of violence and how it affects these women. Study leader Ruby Mendenhall, Illinois Professor of African American Studies and Sociology, and Associate Dean for Diversity and Democratization of Health Innovation at Carly Illinois Medical School, said.

Mindenhall’s group surveyed 68 women from highly violent neighborhoods. They shared stories, filled out stress assessments, and gave blood samples.

From women’s accounts and surveys, as well as from police records of violent crime, researchers measured levels of stress associated with racism, poverty, and neighborhood violence.

Next, the researchers studied how genes related to stress and immunity are expressed in white blood cells, called leukocytes, found in the participants’ blood samples.

“Leukocytes are part of the immune system. They are activated to help fight disease and infection, as well as respond to stress hormones, meaning that their genes are good indicators of the effects of stress on health and well-being,” said study co-author Jane Robinson, professor of entomology and director of the Carl Institute. R. Woese is a genome biologist and interim dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at I.U.

When looking at the genes associated with the stress pathway during flight or flight, the researchers did not see any significant differences between participants who considered their neighborhoods dangerous and those who did not. However, they found that women who reported a higher risk in the neighborhood showed significantly greater activity of genes regulated by glucocorticoid receptors – a stress response pathway previously documented in the animals’ response to a persistent and formidable threat. The author is Steve Cole, professor at the University of California.

“These rotten responses are the agency’s strategy to conserve resources and persevere in the face of tremendous adversity,” Cole said. Instead of preparing to fight or flee, the body takes its time and sustains itself for better days to come. But it is important to reach this better future. Otherwise, the accumulated body may not carry out the continuous maintenance necessary for perfect health. “

Study co-author Claire Richch, a professor at the University of Kentucky and a former postdoctoral researcher in the Robinson Group, said the distinction between stress pathways is important for planning health interventions and improving health outcomes.

“Increased glucocorticoid activity is usually associated with aging, so it is as if these women are showing signs of accelerated aging, which is believed to be one of the reasons that stress can lead to worse health outcomes,” Richcheff said.

Next, researchers explore the cultural coping mechanisms that black women in the study community rely on in their daily lives, in addition to training health care providers, social services, and policymakers in ways to reduce stress, improve health outcomes, and reduce and reinforce inequalities. Health equity.

“These efforts must be coupled with policies that generally aim to eliminate structural racism in our society,” the authors said in a joint statement, “which is a significant source of stress for African Americans.” “This is in agreement with medical schools across the country declaring racism a health crisis, including Karl Illinois College of Medicine.”


The paper was co-authored by Illinois graduate student Megan Lee, Illinois professors Andrew Greenlee and Sandra Rodriguez Zas, and Vanderbilt University professor Kadair Toure. This work was supported by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the Richard and Margaret Romano Professor Fellowship and the USC / UCLA Center on Bio-Imaging and Population Health.

Editor’s Notes: To contact Ruby Mindenhall, email [email protected] To reach Jane Robinson, send an email [email protected] To reach the Clare Rittschof, send an email [email protected]

The paper “Transcriptomic analyzes of black women in neighborhoods with high levels of violence” is available online.

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