University of Michigan Awarded $6.7m to Study how Social Determinants of Health Impacts Brain Development

University of Michigan Awarded $6.7m to Study how Social Determinants of Health Impacts Brain Development TrialsiteN

The National Institute of Mental Health awarded a $6.7 million grant to the University of Michigan as part the RDoC Initiative—the Research Domain Criteria Initiative—which uses neuroscience and behavioral science to better understand the structure of mental disorders and their underlying pathology. The University of Michigan will specially focus on applying the money to study how poverty-related adversity might affect the development of threat and reward systems in the brain, and how that developmental process might increase the risk for people to develop anxiety and depression.

Focus on Low-Income and African Americans Participants

Pockets of impoverished ghettos, barrios and depressed areas persist across America. The dynamics, in some cases, are changing as cities become more desirable and suburbs fall into neglect. In these communities, crime rates tend to be far higher, educational rates and incomes lower, and incidence of a plethora of disease across therapeutic areas higher. These communities are often overlooked in health studies and it is time to change this—hence, the University of Michigan’s commitment to leverage the grant funds to focus the study on underrepresented populations. The hope is that the study will also help the researchers better understand sources of resilience for those in our communities facing adversity. 

How does “the Ghetto” get under the Skin and into the Biology?

Specifically, research teams are looking into controversial but important questions—questions that are timely as America grapples with a health crisis that in many respects reflects a growing social crisis. The social determinants of health become an ever more common topic across research and health care circles nationwide. After all, the data reveals that one’s zip code, economic status, ethnicity, and education levels can impact their health in profound ways. 

Hence the University of Michigan researchers, such as Co-investigator Christopher Monk, notes, “We know that violence exposure in the neighborhood, parental neglect and poverty are variables that affect risk for mental illness, but we don’t really know how these adverse experiences get under the skin, and tweak biology and other aspects of brain function to increase risk for anxiety and depression.”

Probing Deeper into Anxiety and Depression

The study will not only focus on unrepresented groups and how social determinants can impact anxiety and depression but also enable the researchers to study the characteristics of depression and anxiety in order to help them better understand these kinds of disorders. Today, the boundaries of depression and anxiety are poorly understood and could be part of the same disorder, or made up of many different disorders all together, reports Luke Hyde, associate professor of psychology and University of Michigan SRC faculty associate.

The Study

The study leads will recruit participants from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a long-running study based at Princeton and Columbia universities that has followed the same group of 5,000 children since birth. This study interviews mothers, fathers and /or primary caregivers of the participating children at birth, and at ages 1, 3, 5, 9 and 15, collecting information on relationships, parenting behavior, demographic characteristics, mental and physical health, economic and employment status, and neighborhood characteristics.


The team ultimately seeks to better understand how poverty-related stressors may change the brain and how such changes to the brain lead to the worsening conditions of anxiety and depression, for example.

Lead Research/Investigator

Christopher Monk, professor of psychology and of psychiatry and research professor in the Survey Research Center (SRC) at the Institute for Social Research

Luke Hyde, associate professor of psychology and SRC faculty associate

Colter Mitchell, co-principal investigator and research assistant professor in ISR’s SRC and faculty associate of the Population Studies Center

Call to Action: Interested in this potentially breakthrough study—understanding how poverty and other social determinants of health actually biologically impact the brain and central nervous system, for example? Follow the link to read the entire University of Michigan article.  Also connect with the investigators.