Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2021 Feb 16;127:105174. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2021.105174. Online ahead of print.
Chronic stress threatens an individual’s capacity to maintain psychological and physiological homeostasis, but the molecular processes underlying the biological embedding of these experiences are not well understood. This is particularly true for marginalized groups, presenting a fundamental challenge to decreasing racial, economic, and gender-based health disparities. Physical and social environments influence genome function, including the transcriptional activity of core stress responsive genes. We studied the relationship between social experiences that are associated with systemic inequality (e.g., racial segregation, poverty, and neighborhood violence) and blood cell (leukocytes) gene expression, focusing on the activation of transcription factors (TF) critical to stress response pathways. The study used data from 68 women collected from a convenience sample in 2013 from the Southside of Chicago. Comparing single, low-income Black mothers living in neighborhoods with high levels of violence (self-reported and assessed using administrative police records) to those with low levels of violence we found no significant differences in expression of 51 genes associated with the Conserved Transcriptional Response to Adversity (CTRA). Using TELiS analysis of promoter TF-binding motif prevalence we found that mothers who self-reported higher levels of neighborhood stress showed greater expression of genes regulated by the glucocorticoid receptor (GR). These findings may reflect increased cortisol output from the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, or increased GR transcriptional sensitivity. Transcript origin analyses identified monocytes and dendritic cells as the primary cellular sources of gene transcripts up-regulated in association with neighborhood stress. The prominence of GR-related transcripts and the absence of sympathetic nervous system-related CTRA transcripts suggest that a subjective perception of elevated chronic neighborhood stress may be associated with an HPA-related defeat-withdrawal phenotype rather than a fight-or-flight phenotype. The defeat-withdrawal phenotype has been previously observed in animal models of severe, overwhelming threat. These results demonstrate the importance of studying biological embedding in diverse environments and communities, specifically marginalized populations such as low-income Black women.