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Neuroimaging maps brain changes in self-harming teenage girls.

Self-harm is when somebody intentionally damages or injures their body as a way of coping with very difficult feelings, painful memories or overwhelming situations.  Self-inflicted injury in adolescence is a serious public health concern with more than half of people who die by suicide having a history of self-harm.  However, currently the neurobiological underpinnings of self-harm is limited.   Now, a study from researchers at Ohio State University uses neuroimaging to show how the brains of teenage girls who engage in serious forms of self-harm exhibit structures similar to those seen in adults with borderline personality disorder, a severe and hard-to-treat mental illness.  The team states reduced brain volumes seen in these girls confirm biological changes and should prompt additional efforts to prevent and treat a self-inflicted injury, a known risk factor for suicide.  The study is published in the journal Development and Psychopathology.

Previous studies have linked self-injury to later diagnosis of depression, borderline personality disorder, and suicide.  Structural and functional abnormalities are well-documented in several areas of the brain known to help regulate emotions in adults with borderline personality disorder.  The current study uses neuroimaging with the brains of adolescents who engage in self-harm to investigate whether there are similar changes to those seen in adults with borderline personality disorder.

The current study includes twenty 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. Results show the overall brain volumes of the 20 self-injuring girls had clear decreases in volume in parts of the brain called the insular cortex and inferior frontal gyrus compared with the control group.  Data findings indicate structural abnormalities in some, not all, cortical brain regions implicated in borderline personality disorder among adults.

The group explains the adjacent highlighted regions are two of several areas where brain volumes are smaller in adults with borderline personality disorder, as well as being found in more females.  They go on to add brain volume losses are also well-documented in people who’ve undergone abuse, neglect, and trauma.

The team surmises their study shows self-injuring adolescent girls exhibit brain changes similar to those seen in adults with borderline personality disorder.  For the future, the researchers state further studies are needed to help better understand the relationship between changes in the brain and self-harm, and how those might correspond to borderline personality disorder and other mental disorders.

Source: Ohio State University

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