Nav: Home

Brain changes found in self-injuring teen girls

November 13, 2018

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The brains of teenage girls who engage in serious forms of self-harm, including cutting, show features similar to those seen in adults with borderline personality disorder, a severe and hard-to-treat mental illness, a new study has found.

Reduced brain volumes seen in these girls confirms biological - and not just behavioral - changes and should prompt additional efforts to prevent and treat self-inflicted injury, a known risk factor for suicide, said study lead author Theodore Beauchaine, a professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.

This research is the first to highlight physical changes in the brain in teenage girls who harm themselves.

The findings are especially important given recent increases in self-harm in the U.S., which now affects as many as 20 percent of adolescents and is being seen earlier in childhood, Beauchaine said.

"Girls are initiating self-injury at younger and younger ages, many before age 10," he said.

Cutting and other forms of self-harm often precede suicide, which increased among 10- to 14-year-old girls by 300 percent from 1999 to 2014, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During that same time, there was a 53 percent increase in suicide in older teen girls and young women. Self-injury also has been linked to later diagnosis of depression and borderline personality disorder.

In adults with borderline personality disorder, structural and functional abnormalities are well-documented in several areas of the brain that help regulate emotions.

But until this research, nobody had looked at the brains of adolescents who engage in self-harm to see if there are similar changes.

The new study, which appears in the journal Development and Psychopathology, included 20 teenage girls with a history of severe self-injury and 20 girls with no history of self-harm. Each girl underwent magnetic resonance imaging of her brain. When the researchers compared overall brain volumes of the 20 self-injuring girls with those in the control group, they found clear decreases in volume in parts of the brain called the insular cortex and inferior frontal gyrus.

These regions, which are next to one another, are two of several areas where brain volumes are smaller in adults with borderline personality disorder, or BPD, which, like cutting and other forms of self-harm, is more common among females. Brain volume losses are also well-documented in people who've undergone abuse, neglect and trauma, Beauchaine said.

The study also found a correlation between brain volume and the girls' self-reported levels of emotion dysregulation, which were gathered during interviews prior to the brain scans.

Beauchaine said this study does not mean that all girls who harm themselves will go on to develop BPD - but it does highlight a clear need to do a better job with prevention and early intervention.

"These girls are at high risk for eventual suicide. Self-injury is the strongest predictor of suicide outside of previous suicide attempts," Beauchaine said. "But there's most likely an opportunity here to prevent that. We know that these brain regions are really sensitive to outside factors, both positive and negative, and that they continue to develop all the way into the mid-20s," he said.

Adolescents who self-injure are more anxious, more depressed and more hostile than their peers who are also referred to mental health experts, previous studies have shown. This new brain-volume evidence bolsters the argument that self-injury should be viewed as a potential sign of serious, life-threatening illness, Beauchaine said, adding that there are no major prevention projects currently aimed at pre-adolescent girls in the United States. Instead, most current interventions start in adolescence when risk for self-harm is greatest.

"A lot of people react to girls who cut by saying, 'She's just doing it for attention, she should just knock it off,' but we need to take this seriously and focus on prevention. It's far easier to prevent a problem than to reverse it," he said.

He said it's important to recognize that the research does not establish whether the decreased brain volume seen in the study preceded the self-harm, or emerged after the girls began to injure themselves.

Further studies looking at brain changes are needed to help researchers better understand the relationship between structural differences and self-harm and how those might correspond to BPD and other mental disorders down the road, Beauchaine said.

"If we can learn more about how adults with psychiatric disorders got there, we are in a much better position to take care of people with these illnesses, or even stop them from happening in the first place," he said.

A previously published study in these same girls applied functional MRI during a task in which they could receive monetary rewards. The researchers saw diminished brain responses to reward in those girls with a history of self-harm - results that looked similar to previous studies of adults with mood disorders and borderline personality disorder.

"Self-injury is a phenomenon that's increasing, and that's less common outside of the United States. It's saying something about our culture that this is happening, and we should do whatever we can to look for ways to prevent it," Beauchaine said.
-end-
CONTACT: Theodore Beauchaine, 614-688-2141; Beauchaine.1@osu.edu">Beauchaine.1@osu.edu

Written by Misti Crane, 614-292-5220; Crane.11@osu.edu">Crane.11@osu.edu

Ohio State University

Related Mental Health Articles:

The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health: Mental health harms related to very frequent social media use in girls might be due to exposure to cyberbullying, loss of sleep or reduced physical activity
Very frequent use of social media may compromise teenage girls' mental health by increasing exposure to bullying and reducing sleep and physical exercise, according to an observational study of almost 10,000 adolescents aged 13-16 years studied over three years in England between 2013-2015, published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal.
Can Facebook improve your mental health?
Contrary to popular belief, using social media and the internet regularly could improve mental health among adults and help fend off serious psychological distress, such as depression and anxiety, finds a new Michigan State University study.
A gut feeling for mental health
The first population-level study on the link between gut bacteria and mental health identifies specific gut bacteria linked to depression and provides evidence that a wide range of gut bacteria can produce neuroactive compounds.
Mental health care increasing most among those with less distress
A new study shows that more Americans are getting outpatient mental health care and the rate of serious psychological distress is decreasing.
On-again, off-again relationships might be toxic for mental health
A researcher from the University of Missouri says that the pattern of breaking up and getting back together can impact an individual's mental health and not for the better.
Could mental health apps lead to overdiagnosis?
Mental health app marketing commonly presents mental health problems as ubiquitous and individuals as responsible for mental wellbeing; overdiagnosis and denial of the social factors related to mental health could result.
Student-run mental health education efforts may improve college mental health climate
Studies estimate that 20 percent to 36 percent of college students cope with some form of serious psychological distress, yet only about a third receive any services despite the fact they often have access to on-campus help.
How mental health diagnosis should be more collaborative
New research published in The Lancet Psychiatry finds that mental health diagnosis should be more collaborative.
Self-rating mental health as 'good' predicts positive future mental health
Researchers have found that when a person rates their current mental health as 'positive' despite meeting criteria for a mental health problem, it can predict good mental health in the future, even without treatment.
Medicating for mental health
University of Guelph researchers found evidence that a single bout of exhaustive exercise protects against acute olanzapine-induced hyperglycemia.
More Mental Health News and Mental Health Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Rethinking Anger
Anger is universal and complex: it can be quiet, festering, justified, vengeful, and destructive. This hour, TED speakers explore the many sides of anger, why we need it, and who's allowed to feel it. Guests include psychologists Ryan Martin and Russell Kolts, writer Soraya Chemaly, former talk radio host Lisa Fritsch, and business professor Dan Moshavi.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#538 Nobels and Astrophysics
This week we start with this year's physics Nobel Prize awarded to Jim Peebles, Michel Mayor, and Didier Queloz and finish with a discussion of the Nobel Prizes as a way to award and highlight important science. Are they still relevant? When science breakthroughs are built on the backs of hundreds -- and sometimes thousands -- of people's hard work, how do you pick just three to highlight? Join host Rachelle Saunders and astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Ethan Siegel for their chat about astrophysics and Nobel Prizes.