$2 million grant given for brain development and self-injury research

Dr. Kathryn Cullen is beginning a five-year study on non-suicidal self-injury in girls, ages 12-14 using brain scans.

Olivia Johnson

Self-injury has been researched before, but a new University of Minnesota study will use brain scans to find why some people kill themselves and others don’t.

A nearly $2 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health was given to the University for a five-year study of the correlation between brain mechanisms and non-suicidal self-injury in adolescent girls.

Dr. Kathryn Cullen, psychiatry assistant professor and head of the department’s child and adolescent division, said non-suicidal self-injury – or NSSI – has risen in recent years.

“[NSSI] is a common problem in adolescents these days,” Cullen said. “More common now than it used to be, and we don’t understand well what are the biological causes of it or what are the underlying mechanisms of it.”

Cullen applied for the grant in October 2015 and said it was a long process before the research could start. Her team is currently recruiting test subjects.

The team wants to find mechanisms in the brain’s biology that can predict NSSI.

Studying adolescent brains could show whether the behavior needs long-term treatment or is an experimental behavior subjects can stop on their own.

Cullen said another goal is to study changes in the circuits of the brain over time to see if the severity of NSSI relates to brain development. This could mean healthy people have similar growth patterns through mid-adolescence while others’ patterns differ.

“We’re expecting to see a different pattern, a different trajectory in adolescents with self-harm behaviors,” she said. “And more so in those with more severe behaviors than those with mild behaviors.”

Most previous research on the topic has been surveys asking adolescents about self-injury, Cullen said, and none have looked at brain development.

The project will evaluate girls between 12 and 14 years old with clinical questionnaires to ask how they feel and what their behavior is like, she said.

Researchers will then brain scan the girls and take other tests to analyze their stress hormones. Each will be tested the same way one and two years later.

Dr. Daniel Dickstein, a pediatrician, child psychologist and associate professor at Brown University, researches the underlying reasons for mental illnesses in kids. He said he often uses brain imaging to learn about behavior, and over the past five years, he has done research similar to Cullen’s NSSI study.

He said one of his studies compared 45 kids who cut themselves but had never made a suicide attempt to 45 kids who had made a suicide attempt but had never cut themselves along with 45 healthy control subjects.

The study is now in its second phase, Dickstein said, adding he wants to understand the mechanisms in kids’ brains who self-injure to find out what contributes to eventually attempting suicide.

“So far, we have found that … kids who cut themselves without an intent to die do have some differences compared to kids who have made suicide attempts,” he said.

Dickstein said the differences include how kids handle acceptance and rejection as well as their unconscious attitudes toward death and suicide.

He and Cullen — who he calls a leader in this field — aim to make a difference in self-harm behavior and suicide rates.

Dr. Kelvin Lim, a University of Minnesota psychiatry professor, is advising the design, data collection and analysis techniques on Cullen’s study. He has also worked with Cullen on past studies.

Lim said he doesn’t know why NSSI behavior is rising, but it’s an important field, and looking at it from a neurological perspective is needed to develop new treatments.

“It was just really a great opportunity to be able to move the field forward,” he said. “Not much is known about … what’s happening in the brain in people who do this type of behavior.”