Study finds brain changes in self-harming teen girls, need for early suicide intervention

The brains of teenage girls who self-harm themselves show features similar to those seen in adults with borderline personality disorder (BPD) a new study says (WSYX/WTTE)

The brains of teenage girls who self-harm themselves show features similar to those seen in adults with borderline personality disorder (BPD) according to a new study from Ohio State. These findings confirm biological as well as behavioral changes and should prompt more efforts to prevent and treat self-inflicted injury, a suicide risk factor, study lead author Theodore Beauchaine, a professor of psychology Ohio State says.

Self-injury also has been linked to later diagnosis of depression and BPD. In adults with BPD, structural and functional abnormalities are documented in several brain parts that help control emotions.

This study had 40 teenage girls, 20 with history of self-injury and 20 with no history of it. Each girl underwent magnetic resonance imaging of her brain. When brain volumes of the girls were compared, decreases in volume in the insular cortex and inferior frontal gyrus were found in the girls who hurt themselves.

These regions are two of several areas where brain volumes are smaller in adults with BPD is more common among females. Brain volume losses are also well-documented in people who’ve experience abuse and neglect, Beauchaine said. Researchers also saw diminished brain responses in girls with a history of self-harm like cutting.

Beauchaine said these findings don't mean every girl who harms themselves will develop BPD but proves a better job with prevention and early intervention must be done.

“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.

The findings come during increases in self-harm in America, which currently affects 20 percent of adolescents and is seen earlier in childhood, Beauchaine said.

Self-injuries often precede suicide, which increased among 10- to 14-year-old girls by 300 percent from 1999-2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During this time, there was a 53 percent increase in suicide in older teen girls and young women.

Beauchaine says this new brain-volume evidence strengths the argument that self-injury should be looked at as a sign of a serious, life-threatening illness, and it's problematic that most interventions start in adolescence when the self-harm risk is the highest.

“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 more studies looking at brain changes are needed to help researchers better understand the connection between structural differences and self-harm and how those might cause BPD and other mental disorders in the future.

“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. “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.”

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