Radically reframing studies on neurobiology and socioeconomic circumstances: A call for social justice-oriented neuroscience


Socioeconomic circumstances are associated with symptoms and diagnostic status of nearly all mental health conditions. Given these robust relationships, neuroscientists have attempted to elucidate how socioeconomic-based adversity “gets under the skin.” Historically, this work emphasized individual proxies of socioeconomic position (e.g., income, education), ignoring the effects of broader socioeconomic contexts (e.g., neighborhood socioeconomic disadvantage) which may uniquely contribute to chronic stress. This omission represented a disconnect between neuroscience and other allied fields that have recognized health is undeniably linked to interactions between systems of power and individual characteristics. More recently, neuroscience work has considered how sociopolitical context affects brain structure and function; however, the products of this exciting line of research have lacked critical sociological and historical perspectives. While empirical evidence on this topic is burgeoning, the cultural, ethical, societal, and legal implications of this work have been elusive. Although the mechanisms by which socioeconomic circumstances impact brain structure and function may be similar across people, not everyone is exposed to these factors at similar rates. Individuals from ethnoracially minoritized groups are disproportionally exposed to neighborhood disadvantage. Thus, socioeconomic inequities examined in neuroscience research are undergirding with other forms of oppression, namely structural racism. We utilize a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to interpret findings from neuroscience research and interweave relevant theories from the fields of public health, social sciences, and Black feminist thought. In this perspective piece, we discuss the complex relationship that continues to exist between academic institutions and underserved surrounding communities, acknowledging the areas in which neuroscience research has historically harmed and/or excluded structurally disadvantaged communities. We conclude by envisioning how this work can be used; not just to inform policymakers, but also to engage and partner with communities and shape the future direction of human neuroscience research.

Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience