The Ripple Effect

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A groundbreaking study conducted by a team of researchers from Yale and Columbia University found that a pregnant woman’s experience of discrimination and acculturation, or assimilation to a new culture, can leave a lasting imprint on their infant’s brain, altering key emotional processing centers.

The collaboration between Yale’s Multi-modal Imaging, Neuroinformatics, & Data Science Laboratory and Columbia’s Early Neuroimaging, Neuroimmune, and Neuropsychology Lab examined the experiences of Latina women in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. By measuring brain activity with a technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging, the study examined changes in functional connectivity—how parts of the brain interact with each other—in infants. The study found that negative experiences during pregnancy, including discrimination, acculturation, stress, anxiety, and depression, have distinct effects. Infants from mothers facing higher discrimination levels exhibited weaker connectivity in the amygdala (the brain’s emotional processing center) and stronger connectivity in the fusiform cortex (the facial processing site). Acculturation was associated with weaker connectivity in both areas among infants.The findings have important implications for healthcare professionals, particularly in prenatal care. Dustin Scheinost GSAS ’13, an associate professor of radiology and biomedical imaging at Yale and the senior author of the study, emphasized the importance of screening for discrimination and acculturation to improve maternal and newborn outcomes. The results, he explained, underscore the need for broader societal awareness of the long-lasting physical impacts of discriminatory experiences. “How we treat each other is pretty important,” Schienost said. This study adds to the mountain of evidence showing that discrimination harms not only the person experiencing it, but also future generations—a powerful argument for working toward a more just and inclusive world.