INCLUSION IN ACTION- Kinesiology researchers examine health disparities in Black Americans

September 30, 2020

"Inclusion in Action | Auburn University College of Education"
The statistics speak for themselves – Black Americans are more likely to die from health conditions than non-Hispanic White Americans. Some of those conditions include heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke. Two researchers in Auburn’s School of Kinesiology are working to learn more about the health disparities faced by African Americans in hopes that their work can lead to life-saving solutions.

Michael Brown, professor and director of the Hypertension and Vascular Health Lab, and Austin Robinson, assistant professor and director of the Neurovascular Physiology Laboratory, focus their work on understanding African American health. They are both part of Auburn’s Health Disparities Research Initiative.

Brown’s research interests include the effects of exercise on hypertension, racial differences in systemic and vascular inflammation and responses to exercise. He also studies ways to improve vascular health, specifically, vascular inflammation, in African Americans.Michael Brown Headshot outside

“Our research program focuses on hypertension, vascular health, and exercise in African Americans,” Brown said. “We use complementary human and cell models to address research questions. Specifically, we focus on elucidating the mechanisms by which changes in lifestyle factors lead to beneficial changes in both conventional and non-conventional cardiovascular disease risk factors.”

Brown focuses primarily, but not exclusively, on African Americans because their morbidity and mortality rates from cardiovascular disease, particularly hypertension, exceed other U.S. populations.

“Our goal is to provide preventive and therapeutic strategies by using a combination of cell/molecular biology, human intervention, and community involvement research,” he said

For his part, Robinson has accumulated a number of grants for his research on racial disparities faced by African Americans. His largest grant is for $764,000 from the National Institutes of Health to study racial differences in sodium and blood pressure regulation. He is researching why African Americans in particular are more likely to have diminished cardiovascular function after eating high amounts of dietary sodium. The study will be one of three active studies in Robinson’s lab.

Researchers in his Neurovascular Physiology Laboratory seek to determine integrative strategies to prevent and treat cardiovascular disease, the number one cause of death in America. Specifically, they are interested in studying the physiological responses to lifestyle interventions, such as exercise, diet and pharma/nutraceuticals. “I’m broadly interested in how nutrition and physical activity influence our blood vessel health,” Robinson said. “Most of what I research is peripheral blood vessels in the arms and legs and how nutrition affects cardiovascular health. This is important because blood vessel function controls our blood pressure and blood flow to all of our organs, like the kidneys and brain.”

Austin Robinson headshot in front of Samford HallAnother new study through Robinson’s lab will examine how an antioxidant supplement affects blood flow regulation. “We are interested in determining whether a specific antioxidant helps reduce racial disparities in blood vessel function and blood pressure.”

Robinson also recently received internal funding through the Auburn University Office of the Vice President for Research to collaborate with Dr. Thomas Fuller-Rowell to examine the role of social determinants of health in contributing to racial health disparities in blood vessel function.

“A unique aspect of Dr. Brown’s research and my research is that we are interested in biological mechanisms that cause blood vessel dysfunction and poor cardiovascular health, but we are also very aware of how social factors like wealth and housing inequality may be contributing to health disparities and seek to address that in our research.”

Through the research of both Brown and Robinson, tangible solutions to complex medical issues faced by African Americans could be on the horizon.