Duke Research Blog

Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke.

How We Know Where We Are

The brain is a personalized GPS. It can keep track of where you are in time and space without your knowledge.

The hippocampus is a key structure in formation of memories and includes cells that represent a person’s environment.

Daniel Dombeck PhD, and his team of researchers at Northwestern University have been using a technique designed by Dombeck himself to figure out how exactly the brain knows where and when we are. He shared his methods and findings to a group of researchers in neurobiology at Duke on Tuesday.

Domeck and his lab at Northwestern are working at identifying exactly how the brain represents spatial environments.

The apparatus used for these experiments was adapted from a virtual reality system. They position a mouse on a ball-like treadmill that it manipulates to navigate through a virtual reality field or maze projected for the mouse to see. Using water as a reward, Dombeck’s team was able to train mice to traverse their virtual fields in a little over a week.

In order to record data about brain activity in their mice as they navigated virtual hallways, Dombeck and his team designed a specialized microscope that could record activity of single cells in the hippocampus, a deep brain structure previously found to be involved in spatial navigation.

The device allows researchers to observe single cells as a mouse navigates through a simulated hallway.

Previous research has identified hippocampal place cells, specialized cells in the hippocampus that encode information about an individual’s current environment. The representations of the environment that these place cells encode are called place fields.

Dombeck and his colleague Mark Sheffield of the University of Chicago were interested in how we encode new environments in the hippocampus.

Sheffield studied the specific neural mechanisms behind place field formation.

After training the mice to navigate in one virtual environment, Sheffield switched the virtual hallway, thus simulating a new environment for the mouse to navigate.

They found that the formation of these new place cells uses existing neural networks initially, and then requires learning to adapt and strengthen these representations.

After identifying the complex system representing this spatial information, Dombeck and colleagues wondered how the system of representing time compared.

Jim Heys, a colleague of Dombeck, designed a new virtual reality task for the lab mice.

In order to train the mice to rely on an internal representation of passing time, Heys engineered a door-stop task, where a mouse traversing the virtual hallway would encounter an invisible door. If the mouse waited 6 seconds at the door before trying to continue on the track, it would be rewarded with water. After about three months of training the mice, Heys was finally able to collect information about how they encoded the passing of time.

Heys indentified cells in the hippocampus that would become active only after a certain amount of time had passed – one cell would be active after 1 second, then another would become active after 2 seconds, etc. until the 6-second wait time was reached. Then, the mouse knew it was safe to continue down the hallway.

When comparing the cells active in each different task, Dombeck and Heys found that the cells that encode time information are different from the cells that encode spatial information. In other words, the cells that hold information about where we are in time are separate from the ones that tell us where we are in space.

Still these cells work together to create the built-in GPS we share with animals like mice.

By Sarah Haurin

Generating Winning Sports Headlines

What if there were a scientific way to come up with the most interesting sports headlines? With the development of computational journalism, this could be possible very soon.

Dr. Jun Yang is a database and data-intensive computing researcher and professor of Computer Science at Duke. One of his latest projects is computational journalism, in which he and other computer science researchers are considering how they can contribute to journalism with new technological advances and the ever-increasing availability of data.

An exciting and very relevant part of his project is based on raw data from Duke men’s basketball games. With computational journalism, Yang and his team of researchers have been able to generate diverse player or team factoids using the statistics of the games.

Grayson Allen headed for the hoop.

Grayson Allen headed for the hoop.

An example factoid might be that, in the first 8 games of this season, Duke has won 100% of its games when Grayson Allen has scored over 20 points. While this fact is obvious, since Duke is undefeated so far this season, Yang’s programs will also be able to generate very obscure factoids about each and every player that could lead to unique and unprecedented headlines.

While these statistics relating player and team success can only imply correlation, and not necessarily causation, they definitely have potential to be eye-catching sports headlines.

Extracting factoids hasn’t been a particularly challenging part of the project, but developing heuristics to choose which factoids are the most relevant and usable has been more difficult.

Developing these heuristics so far has involved developing scoring criteria based on what is intuitively impressive to the researcher. Another possible measure of evaluating the strength of a factoid is ranking the types of headlines that are most viewed. Using this method, heuristics could, in theory, be based on past successes and less on one researcher’s human intuition.

Something else to consider is which types of factoids are more powerful. For example, what’s better: a bolder claim in a shorter period of time, or a less bold claim but over many games or even seasons?

The ideal of this project is to continue to analyze data from the Duke men’s basketball team, generate interesting factoids, and put them on a public website about 10-15 minutes after the game.

Looking forward, computational journalism has huge potential for Duke men’s basketball, sports in general, and even for generating other news factoids. Even further, computational journalism and its scientific methodology might lead to the ability to quickly fact-check political claims.

Right now, however, it is fascinating to know that computer science has the potential to touch our lives in some pretty unexpected ways. As our current men’s basketball beginning-of-season winning streak continues, who knows what unprecedented factoids Jun Yang and his team are coming up with.

By Nina Cervantes

Panic in the Poster Session!

For their recent retreat, Regeneration Next tried something a little different for the time-honored poster session.

Rather than simply un-tubing that poster they took to the American Association of Whatever a few months ago, presenters were asked to DRAW their poster fresh and hot on a plain sheet of white paper in 15 minutes, using nothing more than an idea and a couple of markers.

Concerns were shared, shall we say, with the leadership of the regenerative medicine initiative when the rules were announced.

“People are always nervous about something they haven’t tried before,” said Regeneration Next Executive Director Sharlini Sankaran. “There was a lot of anxiety about the new format and how they would explain their research without charts and graphs.”

There was palpable poster panic as the retreat moved to the wide open fifth floor of the Trent Semans Center in the late afternoon. Administrative coordinator Tiffany Casey had spread out a rainbow of brand-new sharpies and the moveable bulletin boards stood in neat, numbered ranks with plain white sheets of giant post-it paper.

After some nervous laughter and a few attempts at color-swapping, the trainees and junior faculty got down to drawing their science on the wobbly tackboards.

And then, it worked! It totally worked. “I think I saw a lot more interactivity and conversation,” Sankaran said.

Valentina Cigliola

A fist-full of colorful sharpies gave Valentina Cigliola a colorful launching point for some good conversations about spinal cord repair, rather than just standing there mutely while visitors read and read and read.

 

Louis-Jan Pilaz

Louis-Jan Pilaz used the entire height of the giant post-it notes to draw a beautifully detailed neuron, with labeled parts explaining how the RNA-binding protein FMRP does some neat tricks during development of the cortex.

 

Delisa Clay

Delisa Clay’s schematics of fruitfly cells having too many chromosomes made it easier to explain. Well, that and maybe a glass of wine.

 

Jamie Garcia

Jamie Garcia used her cell-by-cell familiarity with the zebrafish to make a bold, clear illustration of notochord development and the fish’s amazing powers of self-repair.

 

Lihua Wang

Don’t you think Lihua Wang’s schematic of experimental results is so much more clear than a bunch of panels of tiny text and bar charts?

In the post-retreat survey, Sankaran said people either absolutely loved the draw-your-poster or hated it, but the Love group was much larger.

“Those who hated it felt they couldn’t represent data accurately with hand-drawn charts and graphs,” Sankaran said. “Or that their artistic skills were ‘being judged’.”

A few folks also pointed out that the drawing approach might work against people with a disability of some sort – a concern Sankaran said they will try to address next time.

There WILL be a next time, she added. “I had a few trainees come up to me to say they weren’t sure how it was going to go, but then they said they had fun!”

Post and pix by Karl Leif Bates, whose hand-drawn poster on working with the news office contained no data and was largely ignored.

Duke’s Researchers Are 1 Percent of the Top 1 Percent

This year’s listing of the world’s most-cited researchers is out from Clarivate Analytics, and Duke has 34 names on the list of 3,400 researchers from 21 fields of science and social science.

Having your publication cited in a paper written by other scientists is a sign that your work is significant and advances the field. The highly-cited list includes the top 1 percent of scientists cited by others in the years 2005 to 2015.

“Citations by other scientists are an acknowledgement that the work our faculty has published is significant to their fields,” said Vice Provost for Research Lawrence Carin. “In research, we often talk about ‘standing on the shoulders of giants,’ as a way to explain how one person’s work builds on another’s. For Duke to have so many of our people in the top 1 percent indicates that they are leading their fields and their work is indeed something upon which others can build.”

In addition to the Durham researchers, Duke-NUS, our medical school in Singapore,  claims another 13 highly cited scientists.

The highly-cited scientists on the Durham campus are:

Barton Haynes

CLINICAL MEDICINE
Robert Califf
Christopher Granger
Kristin Newby
Christopher O’Connor
Erik Magnus Ohman
Manesh Patel
Michael Pencina
Eric Peterson

ECONOMICS AND BUSINESS
Dan Ariely
John Graham
Campbell Harvey

Drew Shindell

ENVIRONMENT/ECOLOGY
John Terborgh
Mark Wiesner

GEOSCIENCES
Drew Shindell

IMMUNOLOGY
Barton Haynes

MATHEMATICS
James Berger

Georgia Tomaras

Georgia Tomaras

MICROBIOLOGY
Bryan Cullen
Barton Haynes
David Montefiori
Georgia Tomaras

PHARMACOLOGY & TOXICOLOGY
Robert Lefkowitz

PHYSICS
David R. Smith

PLANT AND ANIMAL SCIENCE
Philip Benfey

Terrie Moffitt

Terrie Moffitt

PSYCHIATRY & PSYCHOLOGY
Angold, Adrian
Caspi, Avshalom
Copeland, William E
Costello, E J
Dawson, Geraldine
Keefe, Richard SE
McEvoy, Joseph P
Moffitt, Terrie E

SOCIAL SCIENCES (GENERAL)
Deverick Anderson
Kelly Brownell
Michael Pencina

Scavenger Receptors in Environmental Lung Disease

“Lung disease causes 15% of deaths worldwide” Kymberly Gowdy explained in her lecture at Duke,  “Clean Up and Clear Out: A Novel Role for Scavenger Receptors in Environmental Lung Disease.”

In her research, she applies her training as an immunologist to analyze immune responses to environmental challenges and their role in lung disease. Gowdy is an Assistant Professor at East Carolina University where her research specifically focuses on scavenger receptors (SRs). SRs are pattern recognition receptors that recognize and bind cellular debris and pathogens. Gowdy’s research focuses on scavenger receptor SR-B1 and SR-CD163.

Kymberly Gowdy of East Carolina University

Kymberly Gowdy of East Carolina University

Her experiments with SR-B1 have shown that knockout mice (mice without the scavenger receptor B1) have increased mortality rates after pulmonary infection, as shown in the figure below. After examining different causes of this increase in mortality, Gowdy and her lab concluded that the cause was an increase in bacterial burden.

The pattern they detected revealed that an increase of bacteria in the blood correlates to both an increase in cytokines (substances secreted by immune cells that create inflammation and respond to infections) and an increase in mortality. Gowdy also associated a decrease in clearance in the lungs with this trend, which explains why pneumonia does not heal and therefore leads to death.

Gowdy’s lab also explored the possibility for a connection between SR-B1 and ozone-induced respiratory and cardiovascular inflammation. She discovered a positive correlation between SR-B1, the oxidization of lipids in the lungs, and pulmonary inflammation. She concludes that SR-B1 expression is protective against air pollutant exposure such as ozone.

Mice lacking SR-B1 (dashed line) only survived two days after an infection challenged their lungs.

Gowdy has also investigated a receptor called SR-CD163 which clears hemoglobin and haptoglobin (Hb-Hp) from the lungs. This receptor protects organs from cell-free hemoglobin preventing damage. When she exposed knockout mice without SR-CD163 to ozone, she discovered an increase in the pulmonary levels of cell-free hemoglobin. Similarly to experiments with SR-B1, the CD163-deficient mice demonstrated patterns of increased lung damage as they experienced increased exposure to ozone.

Through her collaboration with laboratories at Duke, Gowdy has been able to discover that ozone exposure increases the response of pulmonary CD163 in mice and humans.

Gowdy’s work has shown the existence of direct relationships between environmental factors such as ozone and the levels of scavenger receptors such as B1 and CD163 in the lungs. The complex association between immune responses and lung diseases creates an interesting field of research, particularly when explored through the lens of environmental triggers.

Gowdy’s results reveal the intricacy of the immune system. An inflammatory response is meant to protect an individual’s health, but too much immune activation in the lungs can lead to disease.

Post by Lydia Goff.

Long-Term Study Sees the Big Picture of Cannabis Use

Seventy percent of the United States population will have tried marijuana by the age of 30. As the debate on the legalization of the most commonly used illicit drug continues throughout the country, researchers like William Copeland, PhD, and Sherika Hill, PhD, from the Duke Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences are interested in patterns of marijuana use and abuse in the first 30 years of life.

Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug.

The Great Smoky Mountain Study set out in 1992 to observe which factors contributed to emotional and behavioral problems in children growing up in western North Carolina. The study included over 1,000 children, including nearly 400 living on the Cherokee reservation. In addition to its intended purpose, the data collected has proven invaluable to understanding how kids and young adults are forming their relationship with cannabis.

The Great Smoky Mountains Study collected extensive medical and behavioral research from 11 counties in western North Carolina.

Using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and patterns of daily use of the drug, Copeland and Hill found some unsurprising patterns: peak use of the drug is during young adulthood (ages 19-21), when kids are moving out of the home to college or to live alone.

But while most people adjust to this autonomy and eventually stop their usage of the drug, a small percentage of users (7%) keep using into their adulthood. Hill and Copeland have observed specific trends that apply both to this chronic user group as well as an even smaller percentage of users (4%) who begin using at a later stage in life than most people, termed the delayed-onset problematic users.

Looking at the demographics of the various types of users, Hill and Copeland found that males are twice as likely to engage in marijuana use to any extent than females. Of those who do use the drug, African Americans are five times more likely to be delayed-onset users, while Native Americans are twice as likely to decrease their use before it becomes problematic.

For both persistent and delayed-onset problematic users, family instability during childhood was 2-4 times more likely than in non-problematic users.

Persistent users were more likely to have endured anxiety throughout childhood, and delayed-onset users were more likely to have experienced some kind of trauma or maltreatment in childhood than other types of users.

The identification of these trends could prove a vital tool in predicting and preventing marijuana abuse, and the importance of this understanding is evidenced in the data collected that elucidates outcomes of marijuana use.

Looking at various measures of social and personal success, the team identified patterns with a resounding trend: recent use of marijuana is indicative of poorer outcomes. Physical health and financial or educational outcomes displayed the worst outcomes in chronic and delayed-onset users. Finally, criminal behavior was increased in every group that used; in other words, regardless of the extent of use, every group with use of marijuana fared worse than the group that abstained.

The results of Copeland and Hill’s work has important implications as legislators debate the legalization of marijuana. While understanding these patterns of use and their outcomes can provide useful insight on the current patterns of usage, decriminalization will certainly change the way marijuana is manufactured and consumed, and will thus also affect these patterns.
By Sarah Haurin

Duke’s Solar Benches Can Charge Your Phone

Aren’t the benches at Duke great? They’re nice structures where you can chill with your friends, eat your Panda Express, get homework done, or maybe even nap. But haven’t you ever been working on a bench outside the Bryan Center around dusk, and it’s getting hard to see those Econ notes? Or cursed under your breath because it’s such a beautiful day outside, but your laptop is about to die?

Benches with solar power have been installed in three spots, including the McClendon Bridge.

Yeah, me too.

That’s exactly what inspired Gerry Chen, a Junior here at Duke, to create the “Solar Bench.” With the support of Smart Home and ESG, Gerry adapted an ordinary swinging bench at Duke into one with iPhone chargers and fully controllable LED strip lights. So fear no more! Now you can send all the snaps you want on your phone without worries of draining your battery, or grind out hours of multi homework while watching the sunset. The best part? It’s all solar powered!

November 6-9 was Energy Week, and on Monday mechanical engineer Shomik Verma presented the “Smart Home Demo,” which featured the inception, design, and implementation of the Solar Bench idea (1). The main motive behind the benches is “to increase the vision and awareness of renewable energy around Duke.” In this sense Gerry took something that started off as a cool way to stay outside after dark, and expanded it into a mode of adding renewable energy to Duke’s campus.

Beneath the canopy is a weatherproof box with a power controller and a bunch of dongles.

These benches are a great addition, especially now that it gets dark at like 5:40 (I mean, come on). Right now there’s three of them—one on the McClendon Bridge, one in the Few Quad, and one at the Smart Home (which you should check out, too—there’s tons of cool stuff there).

It kind of seems like these benches can’t do that much, but keep in mind this is still a relatively new project which started in May. One upgrade that could be happening soon is implementing a way to monitor energy and bench usage. But Gerry’s also got some bigger plans in store. With “Gen 2” he hopes to add more durability, Wifi, laptop chargers, and even motion sensing technology. Now that’s a decked-out bench! There’s more solar benches to come, too. Gerry hopes to make the installation easier and ultimately increase production, especially on East Campus.

Right now, it costs about $950 to make one of these solar benches. Each one has a 250 Watt solar panel sitting on the roof that absorbs energy from the sun and stores it in a big battery at one end of the bench. Underneath the canopy, there’s a thing called a “charge controller” that takes the energy from the sun and battery and distributes it appropriately to the lights and chargers. That’s also where the on / off switch is, as well as knobs to adjust the brightness and color of the lights. On a full charge, the battery can last for four days with no more additional sunlight. Even late in the night, the bench has you covered.

Will demonstrates a proper solar-powered chill.

That’s what’s so cool about solar energy. It almost seems too easy. These benches are saving energy while also using a renewable source. In the process, they’re doing their part to inspire Duke to become a greener campus. In Shomik’s words, this is the sort of technology “that will revolutionize the daily lives of people throughout the world.”

Free, clean energy, that just powers this bad-ass bench nonstop? Who knew a star 93 million miles away could be so useful?!

Will SheehanBy Will Sheehan

Oral Histories of the Gulag

Gulag Voices: Oral Histories of Soviet Detention and Exile (2011), edited by Jehanne M. Gheith and Katherine R. Jolluck, brings interviews with Gulag survivors to English-speaking audiences. In an interview with Gheith, she reflected on how she began her research on the Soviet forced labor camps called Gulags, ethical complications and different kinds of research opportunities for students.

Dr. Jehanne M. Gheith, Associate Professor of Russian Culture at Duke University and Licensed Clinical Social Worker for Duke Hospice

In the early 1990s, Gheith taught a Gulag memoir to Duke students and realized that while students are aware of the Holocaust, their knowledge on Gulags is limited. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s, it was possible for Gheith to interview Gulag survivors. She and her co-editor, Katherine Jolluck, connected ten years later when Jolluck was a professor at Stanford. Jolluck had published Exile and Identity: Polish Women in the Soviet Union During World War II, a book about Polish women in the Gulag, the two embarked on a collaborative partnership. Taking the interviews  Gheith had conducted, she and  Jolluck added archival sections and reviewed the interviews.

Memoirs and scholarly works differ from collections of interviews. Gheith felt it was important to conduct a project where she and others could hear the stories of survivors. An influential source that she consulted was the The Gulag Archipelago 1981-1956 (1973) by Nobel Literature Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The Gulag Archipelago covers three volumes of Solzhenitsyn’s personal experience in the Russian Gulags and his critiques on the Stalin regime.

To find interview subjects for the oral project, Gheith contacted the Russian civil rights organization Memorial. She also interviewed people outside of Memorial using what she described as a “snowball sample.” To piece together the fragmented memories of survivors, Gheith listened and transcribed the stories in the order they were remembered with connecting passages of text. Though time can lead to the misrepresentation of facts, Gheith said, “the facts may be wrong, but you can get to emotional truths.” People may incorrectly recall small details due to numerous factors – nevertheless, through Memorial,  Gheith and Jolluck were able to verify key records of camp survivors, showing the years they were in the camps and the kinds of work they did there.

There were ethical complications Gheith had to surmount – participants could be reluctant to speak about their experiences and expressed surprise that audiences were interested in their memories. Some interviewees were fearful of the Gulag re-occurring and needed to be connected to support resources upon being asked about their encounters.

Gheith also needed to be vigilant about the context and history surrounding Gulags. Because Gulag survivors may have been forced to sign false confessions in the labor camps, Gheith had approval from the Institutional Review Board  to secure verbal agreements on tape in lieu of consent forms.

For students conducting interviews, Gheith suggested reading an oral history, communicating with experts and beginning with a smaller project. Additionally, she had two key points: 1) it is crucial to gain approval from the Institutional Review Board to work with human subjects and 2) if conducting research in a foreign language, the choice between a translator or transcriber should be carefully made, as a translator may shift the relationship dynamic.

In the future, Gheith will be connecting her clinical work to Russian literature and culture. She believes that for students interested in medicine, the arts and humanities have a significant connection to scientific research. Storytelling is also a key part of law and policy, and as students begin to conduct studies in these fields, they are likely to find that the ability to weave a narrative is an indispensable skill. Gheith said she would be happy to talk about the connections between story and medicine with any interested students.

By Ameya Sanyal

Opportunities at the Intersection of Technology and Healthcare

What’d you do this Halloween?

I attended a talk on the intersection of technology and healthcare by Dr. Erich Huang, who is an assistant professor of Biostatistics & Bioinformatics and Assistant Dean for Biomedical Informatics. He’s also the new co-director of Duke Forge, a health data science research group.

This was not a conventional Halloween activity by any means, but I felt lucky to be exposed to this impactful research surrounded by views of the Duke forest in fall in Penn Pavilion at IBM-Duke Day.

Erich Huang

Erich Huang, M.D., PhD. is the co-director of Duke Forge, our new health data effort.

Dr. Huang began his talk with a statistic: only six out of 53 landmark cancer biology research papers are reproducible. This fact was shocking (and maybe a little bit scary?), considering  that these papers serve as the foundation for saving cancer patients’ lives. Dr. Huang said that it’s time to raise standards for cancer research.

What is his proposed solution? Using data provenance, which is essentially a historical record of data and its origins, when dealing with important biomedical data.

He mentioned Duke Data Service (DukeDS), which is an information technology service that features data provenance for scientific workflows. With DukeDS, researchers are able to share data with approved team members across campus or across the world.

Next, Dr. Huang demonstrated the power of data science in healthcare by describing an example patient. Mr. Smith is 63 years old with a history of heart attacks and diabetes. He has been having trouble sleeping and his feet have been red and puffy. Mr. Smith meets the criteria for heart failure and appropriate interventions, such as a heart pump and blood thinners.

A problem that many patients at risk of heart failure face is forgetting to take their blood thinners. Using Pillsy, a company that makes smart pill bottles with automatic tracking, we could record Mr. Smith’s medication taking and record this information on the blockchain, or by storing blocks of information that are linked together so that each block points to an older version of that information. This type of technology might allow for the recalculation of dosage so that Mr. Smith could take the appropriate amount after a missed dose of a blood thinner.

These uses of data science, and specifically blockchain and data provenance, show great opportunity at the intersection of technology and healthcare. Having access to secure and traceable data can lead to research being more reproducible and therefore reliable.

At the end of his presentation, Dr. Huang suggested as much collaboration in research between IBM and Duke as possible, especially in his field. Seeing that the Research Triangle Park location of IBM is the largest IBM development site in the world and is conveniently located to one of the best research universities in the nation, his suggestion makes complete sense.

By Nina Cervantes        

Who Gets Sick and Why?

During his presentation as part of the Chautauqua lecture series, Duke sociologist Dr. Tyson Brown explained his research exploring the ways racial inequalities affect a person’s health later in life. His project mainly looks at the Baby Boomer generation, Americans born between 1946 and 1964.

With incredible increases in life expectancy, from 47 years in 1900 to 79 today, elderly people are beginning to form a larger percentage of the population. However among black people, the average life expectancy is three and a half years shorter.

“Many of you probably do not think that three and half years is a lot,” Brown said. “But imagine how much less time that is with your family and loved ones. In the end, I think all of us agree we want those extra three and a half years.”

Not only does the black population in America have shorter lives on average but they also tend to have sicker lives with higher blood pressures, greater chances of stroke, and higher probability of diabetes. In total, the number of deaths that would be prevented if African-American people had the same life expectancy as white people is 880,000 over a nine-year span. Now, the question Brown has challenged himself with is “Why does this discrepancy occur?”

Brown said he first concluded that health habits and behaviors do not create this life expectancy gap because white and black people have similar rates of smoking, drinking, and illegal drug use. He then decided to explore socioeconomic status. He discovered that as education increases, mortality decreases. And as income increases, self-rated health increases. He said that for every dollar a white person makes, a black person makes 59 cents.

This inequality in income points to the possible cause for the racial inequality in health, he said.  Additionally, in terms of wealth instead of income, a black person has 6 cents compared to the white person’s dollar. Possibly even more concerning than this inconsistency is the fact that it has gotten worse, not better, over time. Before the 2006 recession, blacks had 10-12 cents of wealth for every white person’s dollar.

Brown believes that this financial stress forms one of many stressors in black lives including chronic stressors, everyday discrimination, traumatic events, and neighborhood disorder which affect their health.

Over time, these stressors create something called physiological dysregulation, otherwise known as wear and tear, through repeated activation of  the stress response, he said. Recognition of the prevalence of these stressors in black lives has lead to Brown’s next focus on the extent of the effect of stressors on health. For his data, he uses the Health and Retirement Study and self-rated health (proven to predict mortality better than physician evaluations). For his methods, he employs structural equation modeling. Racial inequalities in socioeconomic resources, stressors and biomarkers of physiological dysregulation collectively explain 87% of the health gap with any number of causes capable of filling the remaining percentage.

Brown said his next steps include using longitudinal and macro-level data on structural inequality to understand how social inequalities “get under the skin” over a person’s lifetime. He suggests that the next steps for society, organizations, and the government to decrease this racial discrepancy rest in changing economic policy, increasing wages, guaranteeing work, and reducing residential segregation.

Post by Lydia Goff

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