Brain scans reveal changes in teen girls who commit self-harm
Self-harm such as cutting is typically considered a sign of mental illnesses such as depression, social anxiety disorder, or bipolar disorder. But new findings suggest that self-harm may be linked to brain changes most similar to a different mental illness – borderline personality disorder.
The report, published this month in the journal Development and Psychopathology, claims that teenage girls who engage in serious self-harm also show unique features in their brain that are highly similar to borderline personality disorder.
The question now is whether the reduction in brain volume seen in those who commit self-harm is the result or cause of the dangerous behavior.
As lead author Theodore Beauchaine explains, the findings are of special importance as recent studies have shown considerable increases in self-harm among teens in the U.S. The latest estimates indicate up to 20% of American adolescents commit acts of self-harm. There is also evidence that self-harm behaviors are occurring earlier in the children’s’ lives.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cutting and other forms of self-harm increased among 10- to 14-year-old girls by 300% between 1999 and 2014. Throughout that time period, the CDC also saw a 53% increase in suicide in older teens and young women.
“Girls are initiating self-injury at younger and younger ages, many before age 10,” said Beauchaine.
Past research has confirmed that those who live with borderline personality disorder have unique structural and functional abnormalities in several regions of the brain tied to emotional regulation.
Until now, though, similar research had never been done to examine potential brain changes from self-harm behaviors.
For the study, the researchers recruited 20 teenage girls with a history of severe self-injury, as well as 20 girls with no history of self-harm. All participants underwent interviews to determine their level of emotional dysregulation and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which showed a clear reduction of brain volume in the insular cortex and inferior frontal gyrus – two of the regions affected by BPD.
Beauchaine also notes that similar reductions in brain volume have been found in those who are victims of abuse, neglect, or trauma.
In the new study, the researchers found that those with the highest levels of emotional dysregulation showed the most significant reduction in brain volume.
While these findings provide a potential tie to severe self-harm and borderline personality disorder, Beauchaine is quick to note that it does not mean every girl who commits self-harm will develop BPD.
Still, the results are significant enough to suggest a need for better prevention and early intervention efforts.
“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.
“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.