Volume 106, August 2019, Pages 277-283

Experienced discrimination and racial differences in leukocyte gene expression


We examined race and HIV differences in transcription activity in pathways relevant to the CTRA.

Racial differences were found in activity of pro-inflammatory transcription control and stress-signaling pathways.

Discrimination explained more than 50% of total race-related difference in pro-inflammatory transcription factor activity.

HIV group differences were found in pro-inflammatory and antiviral transcription pathways.


Racial disparities in health outcomes between African Americans and European Americans have been well-documented, but not fully understood. Chronic inflammation contributes to several of the diseases showing racial disparities (e.g., Human Immunodeficiency Virus [HIV]), and racial differences in stress exposure (e.g., experiences of racial discrimination) that stimulate pro-inflammatory processes that may contribute to differential health outcomes.

We performed a cross-sectional bioinformatic analyses relating perceived discrimination (as measured by the Perceived Ethnic Discrimination Questionnaire [PED-Q]) to the activity of pro-inflammatory, neuroendocrine, and antiviral transcription control pathways relevant to the conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA) in peripheral blood leukocytes. Subjects were 71 individuals (37 HIV-seropositive (HIV+); 34 HIV-seronegative (HIV-)) (mean age = 53 years, range 27–63), who self-identified either as African American/Black (n = 48) or European American/White (n = 23). This provided the opportunity to examine the independent effects of race and HIV, as well as the modifying role of perceived discrimination on pathways involved in CTRA. Exploratory analysis examined the interactive effects of HIV and race on pathways involved in CTRA. Relative to European Americans, African Americans showed increased activity of two key pro-inflammatory transcription control pathways (NF- кB and AP-1) and two stress-responsive signaling pathways (CREB and glucocorticoid receptor); these effects did not differ significantly as a function of HIV infection (HIV x Race interaction, all p > .10). Results suggested that differences in experiences of racial discrimination could potentially account for more than 50% of the total race-related difference in pro-inflammatory transcription factor activity. In sum, differential exposure to racial discrimination may contribute to racial disparities in health outcomes in part by activating threat-related molecular programs that stimulate inflammation and contribute to increased risk of chronic illnesses.


Racial discrimination
Gene expression
African Americans

Present affiliation: April D. Thames, Ph.D. Department of Psychology, University of Southern California.

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