In her Social and Cultural Neuroscience Lab at the University of Miami, assistant professor of Psychology Elizabeth Losin investigates the mechanisms underlying racial and ethnic disparities related to pain and pain treatment. She looks at the role the brain plays using functional MRI (fMRI) and the impact of social and cultural factors, including the doctor-patient relationship and stressful life experiences such as discrimination.
In the study "Neural and sociocultural mediators of ethnic differences in pain," published today in the journal Nature Human Behaviour , Losin; Tor Wager, Diana L. Taylor Distinguished Professor in Neuroscience at Dartmouth College; and colleagues identify possible brain and social factors underlying racial and ethnic disparities in pain. The researchers found that African American participants reported greater pain in response to a controlled pain stimulation than Hispanic or non-Hispanic white participants did. African Americans also exhibited differences in their brain responses to pain, which correlated with their personal histories of experiencing discrimination.
There's evidence that both the general public and clinicians believe that African Americans are less sensitive to pain than non-Hispanic whites; yet research, including our own, shows exactly the opposite. Minorities, particularly African Americans, actually report more pain." Elizabeth Losin, assistant professor of Psychology, University of Miami
These inaccurate racial and ethnic biases about pain could have medical consequences.
"If medical professionals, whether consciously or unconsciously, believe that African Americans feel less pain than others, clinicians may be less inclined to alleviate the pain of their African American patients," explained Losin. Understanding why these pain biases exist, therefore, is a key step toward closing the pain gap - in other words, eliminating racial and ethnic disparities in pain and its treatment.
In the study, Losin and her team measured brain responses using an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine while simultaneously inducing pain in participants via a laboratory heating apparatus on the arm. Outside the MRI scanner, they asked participants questions about different aspects of their lives, including stressful life experiences and previous experiences with pain. The subject group consisted of 88 participants (28 African Americans, 30 Hispanic Americans, and 30 non-Hispanic white Americans) from the Denver metro area, who were recruited and tested by Losin in Wager's Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder.
All of the study participants were administered the same controlled pain stimulation. African Americans, however, reported greater pain than Hispanic or non-Hispanic white participants, which is consistent with previous studies. During this study, the researchers also looked for differences in brain responses to pain. Using the MRI scanner, the researchers identified two specific areas of the brain, the ventral striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which responded to pain more strongly in African American participants than the other two groups. Prior research has found that these two brain regions also respond more strongly to pain in chronic pain patients. Related Stories
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