Neuroplasticity as it Pertains to the Black Experience: My Niche in Science

By: Guyton Harvey

Science has always been a part of my life and my interests, but only once I was able to relate it to my experiences did it become a part of my identity

My first research experience was the summer before my freshman year of college, when I was invited to participate in the Minority Science and Engineering Improvement Program (MSEIP) at Morehouse college, an HBCU.  At the time, I had less interest in research and more interest in getting to know who my classmates at Morehouse would be.  When I originally applied to the program, I had indicated that I was interested in music, so the director placed me with a mentor who was studying traditional African instruments, a project the director knew would engage me.  I arrived at Morehouse that summer and had a truly transformative experience participating in MSEIP.  My project was to create electrified variations of the nyatiti and kalimba for the purpose of introducing aspects of African culture to a wider American audience.  At MSEIP, I got to explore my interests in music, was introduced to global perspectives and empowered by discussions on minority participation in science, and had the opportunity to get hands-on experience with engineering materials.  This was the first time I had had the opportunity to consider ways of increasing minority engagement and representation in science and the effect it can have on communities.  By the end of high school, I had become aware of health disparity and begun to think about the ways in which minorities are impacted by systemic racism and inequities in medicine, but I had not yet considered that those inequities go beyond just medicine and medical policy.  I realized that it is also important that researchers have diverse perspectives and an understanding of the role their research plays outside of the scientific community.  From this program, I developed a fascination with research that addresses the unique health issues minorities disproportionately face and formally began my scientific journey.

At the beginning of my senior year of highschool, my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.  This prompted me to switch my intended major from journalism to psychology in my college applications because I wanted to better understand her condition and how I could help. I had recently taken a social psychology course and had developed an interest in how the brain works as well as the factors which contribute to our perception and understanding of the world.  By the time I arrived at Morehouse for the first semester of my Freshman year, I had convinced myself that I wanted to be a clinical psychologist because I thought that would be the best way for me to address Black mental health issues.  Around my second semester, after I had taken my first college biology course and a course which focused on Psychology as a natural science, I realized that my interest was more in neurological diseases than mental health.  I wanted to be able to look at quantitative data and use that to address the disparity in neurological diseases, with a focus on Alzheimer’s disease.  Aside from my general interest in the nervous system, what drove me toward neuroscience and away from psychology was that neuroscience felt more orderly, perhaps even more explanatory.  Neuroscience gave me the ability to point to specific mechanisms of biological homeostasis and more confidently justify my understanding of science than psychology, which at times felt incredibly unpredictable and left a lot more open to interpretation.  So I switched my major to chemistry (Morehouse does not have a neuroscience major and I was slightly more interested in Chemistry than Biology) and went about the next years of my education pursuing more molecular explanations for neurological phenomena I encountered.  

I began engaging in research more seriously in the summer after my freshman year, when I took an opportunity at the NIH National Institute of Nursing Research, which I enjoyed a lot.  This experience was followed by another experience in an organic chemistry lab at Morehouse which I also enjoyed and soon, I found myself deeply entrenched in research, which prompted me to consider translational medicine.  I could not imagine my career in medicine without research and I could not imagine my research career without practicing medicine. I quickly realized that organic chemistry research, as interesting as it was, was not the path I wanted to take because it felt too detached from my objective, which was to be able to address neurological diseases that disproportionately affect minority populations.  So, I applied to labs and REUs which allowed me to study neurological diseases specifically. One program, the Neurological Surgery Summer Student Program (NSSSP) at the University of Washington (UW), seemed to match that description and that became my ideal summer opportunity.

I was not accepted to the NSSSP, however, my application was forwarded to someone at the Center for Neurotechnology (CNT) at UW and I was extended a spot in their REU that summer.  The CNT is more or less exclusively dedicated to creating interdisciplinary interventions to address neurological diseases.  This was exactly the type of environment I was hoping to be able to learn in. My project was to study whether a promising experimental spinal cord injury treatment, which had allowed for the regaining of mobility in some experiments, was inducing neuroplasticity.  I conducted in vivo electrophysiology experiments, did immunohistochemistry, and was introduced to very basic principles of surgery.  I enjoyed working in that lab immensely and I knew that I would want to study neuroplasticity and neurodegeneration in my career;  neuroplasticity was the nexus between my interest in scientific discovery and my interest in disability and rehabilitation medicine.  

Once I became more knowledgeable about neuroplasticity and the different factors which can influence it which include, among others, psychological and socioeconomic conditions, I began to relate neuroplasticity to my experience as a Black man in America.  I became curious about how the unique psychological and socioeconomic conditions that Black people face could affect mechanisms of neuroplasticity and neurodegeneration.  I wondered if this could be a potential explanation for Black americans’ disproportionate susceptibility to hereditary neurological diseases.  Of course, I know it would be too reductionist to say that is the cause for such diseases and that I have a lot I need to learn before I could confidently make such a claim, but this inspired me to consider experimental models to test this theory.  For one, I would need to create a model for the conditions Black people face in America, which in and of itself is nearly impossible, but I could model emotions like stress and depression, which Black americans are at higher risk for than other demographics (Williams 2000) (Rodriquez et al., 2018).  And finally, suppose there is a link; what treatment, if any, could possibly undo the damage years of systemic racism can have on neuroplasticity and how can I, as a physician-scientist, equitably develop and employ such a treatment?  I am doubtful such a treatment could exist and even if it did, I feel that would be addressing the symptoms of injustices in America and not the injustices themselves.  Nonetheless, I hope to work towards answering some of these questions in my career.

Citation:

Rodriquez EJ, Livaudais-Toman J, Gregorich SE, Jackson JS, Nápoles AM, Pérez-Stable EJ. Relationships between allostatic load, unhealthy behaviors, and depressive disorder in U.S. adults, 2005–2012 NHANES. Preventive Medicine. 2018;110:9-15. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2018.02.002

Williams DR. Race, stress, and mental health: Findings from the Commonwealth Minority Health Survey. In: Hogue C, Hargraves M, Scott-Collins K, editors. Minority Health in America: Findings and Policy Implications from the Commonwealth Fund Minority Health Survey. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press; 2000. pp. 209–243.

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