White Matter Microstructure in Adolescents and Young Adults With Non-Suicidal Self-Injury

Melinda Westlund Schreiner, Bryon A. Mueller, Bonnie Klimes-Dougan, Erin D. Begnel, Mark Fiecus, Dawson Hill, Kelvin O. Lim, Kathryn R. Cullen

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1 Scopus citations


Background: Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) is a growing public health concern that commonly begins in adolescence, and can persist into young adulthood. A promising approach for advancing our understanding of NSSI in youth is to examine white matter microstructure using diffusion magnetic resonance imaging (dMRI). Method: The present study examined whole-brain group differences in structural connectivity (as measured by generalized fractional anisotropy [GFA]) between 28 female adolescents and young adults ages 13–21 years with NSSI and 22 age-matched healthy controls (HC). We also explored the association between clinical characteristics including NSSI severity and duration, impulsivity, emotion regulation and personality traits within the NSSI group and GFA of the uncinate fasciculus and cingulum. Results: Compared to the HC group, participants with NSSI had lower GFA in several white matter tracts, including the uncinate fasciculus, cingulum, bilateral superior and inferior longitudinal fasciculi, anterior thalamic radiation, callosal body, and corticospinal tract. When controlling for depressive symptoms, the NSSI group showed an association between NSSI duration (time since initiating NSSI behavior) and lower GFA in the left cingulum. Higher levels of attentional impulsivity were related to lower GFA in the left uncinate fasciculus within the NSSI group. Conclusions: We found evidence suggesting widespread white matter microstructure deficits in adolescents and young adults with NSSI versus HC. We also report inverse associations between white matter integrity and clinical characteristics (duration of NSSI and attentional impulsivity). These white matter microstructural deficits may represent a possible neurobiologically-based vulnerability to developing maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as NSSI. Additionally, results suggest that this white matter disorganization may either worsen with prolonged engagement in NSSI or predict persistent NSSI; thereby highlighting the importance of early intervention targeting this behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1019
JournalFrontiers in Psychiatry
StatePublished - Jan 24 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
First and foremost, the authors would like to thank the participants and their families who dedicated their time and effort to our research. We would also like to thank Drs. Nicholas Davenport and Christophe Lenglet for providing us with and allowing us to use their customized dMRI tools for calculating GFA. Additionally, we greatly appreciate the assistance of our volunteers, students, and staff who helped with recruitment, coordination, and data collection and management. Some findings from this study have been previously presented at a symposium for the 2018 International Society for the Study of Self-Injury conference. Additionally, this study also served as partial fulfillment of MW?s doctoral dissertation.


  • adolescents
  • cingulum
  • fractional anisotropy
  • neuroimaging
  • non-suicidal self-injury
  • uncinate fasciculus

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article

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