Genetics Magnifies Health Effects of Discrimination Interview with:

Connie J. Mulligan, PhD Professor, Department of Anthropology University of Florida Gainesville, FL

Dr. Connie J. Mulligan

Connie J. Mulligan, PhD
Professor, Department of Anthropology
University of Florida
Gainesville, FL What is the background for this study?

Response: Lance Gravlee (UF Dept of Anthropology, UF Genetics Institute) started this research over 10 years ago. As a cultural anthropologist, Lance uses ethnographic (open-ended questions) interviews and discovered that over half of the participants in our study talked about experiences of discrimination that happened to people close to them.

As a geneticist (UF Dept of Anthropology, UF Genetics Institute), I came into the project because I was interested in seeing how genetics and sociocultural stressors, like discrimination, interact. In our project, we look at blood pressure because hypertension is a disease that shows racial disparities and also because it is a complex disease that is caused by both genetic and environmental factors (like discrimination). What are the main findings?

Response: We found that genetic variants interact with discrimination (we call it unfair treatment in our study) to reveal a new class of genes involved in blood pressure. This class of genes has been previously associated with psychosocial disorders like anxiety and depression. We interpret this finding to mean that genetic variants that predispose a person for depression, anxiety, etc might also make a person more sensitive to the effects of vicarious unfair treatment and lead to higher blood pressure.

We also found that knowing that people close to you have been treated unfairly (the media has been calling this ‘secondhand discrimination’) turns out to be a better predictor of blood pressure than is your own experience of unfair treatment. Although this result was initially surprising, our co-authors (Miaisha Mitchell and Qasimah Boston) helped us understand why this might be so. First, people may feel they have more control over things they experience personally than acts of discrimination happening to people close to them. It may be very stressful to hear about bad things happening to people you love and being unable to do anything about it.

Second, people may be reluctant to report personal experiences of discrimination to avoid the stigma and denial may itself be a coping mechanism.

Finally, the effects of vicarious unfair treatment may be even greater, since our study didn’t include events that one hears through the media, such as the killing of an unarmed boy. What should readers take away from your report?

Response: This study was only possible through the interdisciplinary collaboration of a geneticist and a cultural anthropologist. We’re talking about complicated problems, racial disparities in complex diseases (diseases that have multiple genetic and environmental causes), and it will take novel, sophisticated approaches to get the correct answers. Our finding of an interaction between genetics and environment could explain why it’s been so hard to identify all the risk factors for complex diseases, particularly those that have racial disparities. You have to look at genetics and environment in the same study if you’re investigating diseases like hypertension, certain kinds of cancer and manic depression. Second, the effects of discrimination are probably underestimated and have more physical and health consequences that previously realized. This result is especially important given the increase if reports of violence against minorities – our research suggests that the stress of hearing about these experiences can take a physical toll on the body. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Response: We need to continue to expand our focus in future research to ensure we’re getting all the information necessary to understand the problem of racial disparities in disease. Hopefully, other researchers will incorporate questions about discrimination, both direct and secondhand, in studies of racial disparities. Hopefully, more studies will include genetics and sociocultural factors in studies of complex diseases. Thank you for your contribution to the community.


Jacklyn Quinlan, Laurel N. Pearson, Christopher J. Clukay, Miaisha M. Mitchell, Qasimah Boston, Clarence C. Gravlee, Connie J. Mulligan. Genetic Loci and Novel Discrimination Measures Associated with Blood Pressure Variation in African Americans Living in Tallahassee. PLOS ONE, December 2016 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0167700

Note: Content is Not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider regarding your specific medical condition and questions.

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Last Updated on December 25, 2016 by Marie Benz MD FAAD