Comparing White and Black brains: Turns out ‘genetics’, ‘race’ and ancestry matter when diagnosing disorders

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Early genetics studies were often limited to people of European ancestry. Scientists reasoned that focusing on this population made it easier to link a particular gene with a specific disease.

Now that genetic tools have become less expensive and more powerful, studies are including other groups. Even so, the vast majority of large genomic data sets come from people of European descent.

Also, African Americans and other underrepresented minorities make up only about 5% of the people in genetics research studies.

These disparities are especially troubling when it comes to brain disorders that are more prevalent in people of African ancestry, says Dr. Daniel Weinberger, the Lieber Institute’s CEO.

African Americans are about 20% more likely than other people to experience a serious mental health problem and perhaps twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Related article:  Podcast: Exactly how does the brain do something as simple as storing a phone number?

To understand how genetics and the environment are interacting to cause these high rates of disease, “you have to study brains,” Weinberger says.

And that’s where the Lieber Institute had something to offer. Over the past decade, it has received more than 700 brains from African American families who chose to donate the brain of a relative who died.

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By comparing these brains, scientists hope to figure out why Alzheimer’s occurs more often in African Americans. They also hope to learn why having African ancestry can sometimes protect a person from the disease.

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