Karin Schon, PhD, Receives $3.9M NIH Grant to Examine the Impact of Racism on Brain Aging, Cardiovascular Disease Risk Among Older Black Adults

Black Americans are twice as likely as white Americans to have Alzheimer’s disease (AD) independent of genetic risk. Since perceived racism contributes to racial health disparities in cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors, which also are risk factors for AD, it also has a significant impact on the racial health disparity in AD. Despite this knowledge, little is known about whether and how chronic experiences of racism contribute to poor brain health.

Karin Schon, PhD, assistant professor of anatomy & neurobiology at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), aims to address this pressing issue. She has been awarded a five-year, $3.9 million R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health. Her objective is to investigate the impact of racism burden on brain health in the medial temporal hippocampal (MTH) memory and prefrontal-executive systems in older Black adults and to examine potentially underlying biological mechanisms. The MTH and prefrontal systems are brain systems that show profound neurodegeneration in AD.

“We hypothesize that cognitively healthy Black seniors with higher racism burden will show greater CVD risk and poorer MTH and prefrontal system integrity than those who have lower lifetime racism burden,” explained Schon who also is a faculty affiliate at the BU Center for Anti-Racist Research.Schon believes that CVD risk and mental health may explain the relationship between racism burden and neurocognitive integrity, suggesting poor cardiovascular/cerebrovascular health as a mechanism underlying the relationship between racism burden and poor brain health in the MTH and prefrontal brain systems in Black seniors.

Her investigative team is not only diverse in expertise, but also racially and ethnically.  Collaborators on this project include BU’s Yvette Cozier, DSc; Robert Stern, PhD; Emelia Benjamin, MD and Yorghos Tripodis, PhD.  BU alumna Uraina Clark, PhD from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai along with Angie Sanchez, MD and Jonathan Jackson, PhD from Massachusetts General Hospital.

Schon, received a joint BA/MA degree in psychology from the University of Hamburg in Germany in 1998 and her PhD from the department of psychology at Boston University in 2005. Her dissertation focused on functional neuroimaging studies of working memory and long-term (episodic) memory formation. In 2010, she received a Pathway to Independence Career Development award from the National Institute on Aging to investigate the effects or cardio-respiratory fitness and exercise on the function and structure of the medial temporal hippocampal memory system. In 2013, she joined BUSM’s department of anatomy & neurobiology where she is the Director of the Brain Plasticity and Neuroimaging Laboratory.

Her brain plasticity research focuses on modulators of the MTH system across the lifespan. Currently, she is investigating the role of aerobic exercise, aging and chronic psychosocial stress, as modulators of cognitive function and brain health in aging and AD. With her cognitive neuroscience research on chronic psychosocial stress she aims to take an anti-racist perspective by focusing on the impact of interpersonal and institutional racism on brain health in Black adults. The long-term goal of this research to contribute to health policy change from a cognitive neuroscience perspective with the goal to eliminate brain health inequities.