Kaja LeWinn, ScD
Understanding how the social environment is embodied at an early age: amygdala reactivity to threat-related stimuli as a function of social status
Socioeconomic disadvantage is one of the most salient predictors of poor health. My program of research focuses on how socioeconomic position is biologically embodied with the goal of understanding how disparities in health take root in early life. Though links between childhood SES and health are well documented, less is known about the neurobiological underpinnings of this relationship.
In collaboration with faculty members in neuroscience, pediatrics, and health psychology, I am the principle investigator of a novel pilot project that integrates behavioral, physiological and neurobiological data to investigate how the social environment affects the developing brain. Socioeconomic status (SES) affects nearly every aspect of the environment in which children develop. Children in low SES environments are more likely to be exposed to family and neighborhood violence, live in homes that are more crowded, and attend schools that are poorly resourced compared to those in high SES neighborhoods. Therefore, regions of the brain that undergo structural changes in response to stress and are involved in regulating emotional responses to stimuli (e.g. the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex) are likely to be involved in the biological embedding of social class. The amygdala, which is involved in the formation of emotionally salient memories, fear and vigilance, has widespread projections to the hypothalamus and areas of the brain stem that regulate behavioral, autonomic, and neuroendocrine responses to stress.
In our pilot project, we take a preliminary look at whether hypothesized socioeconomic differences in behavior and physiology can be mapped onto differences in amygdala activation and connectivity between the amygdala and areas of the prefrontal cortex. Utilizing an existing cohort of children in the Bay Area, we are recruiting a sample of children from high and low socioeconomic status environments matched on gender and race. The primary goal of this project is to investigate whether there are differences in amygdala activity and connectivity by socioeconomic status, and whether these differences are correlated with cognitive appraisals of threat, changes in heart rate, and HPA axis reactivity.
I intend to use the findings from this pilot project to secure funding for future work and training in this area. Specifically, I am interested in continuing my training in neuroscience and expanding my knowledge of the genetic and epigenetic mechanisms that may further elucidate how socioeconomic position affects the mental and physical health of the developing child.