Brain Changes Found in Self-Injuring Teen Girls

By Crane, Misti | USA TODAY, May 2019 | Go to article overview

Brain Changes Found in Self-Injuring Teen Girls


Crane, Misti, USA TODAY


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 study at Ohio State University 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, indicates lead author Theodore Beauchaine, professor of psychology.

This research is the first to highlight physical changes in the brain in teenage girls who harm themselves. The findings especially are important given recent increases in self-harm in the U.S., which now affects as many as 20% of adolescents and is being seen earlier in childhood. "Girls are initiating self-injury at younger and younger ages, many before age 10," notes Beauchaine.

Cutting and other forms of self-harm often precede suicide, which has increased among 10- to 14-year-old girls by 300% during the last decade. There also has been a 53% increase in suicide in older teen girls and young women, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Moreover, self-injury 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. Until this research, which appears in the journal Development and Psycho-pathology, nobody had looked at the brains of adolescents who engage in self-harm to see if there are similar changes.

The study 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. Like cutting and other forms of self-harm, BPD is more common among females. Brain volume losses also are well-documented in people who have undergone abuse, neglect, and trauma, Beauchaine points out.

In addition, the study 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. Beau-chaine stresses that the study results do 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. …

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