Self-injurious behaviour in intellectual disability syndromes: evidence for aberrant pain signalling as a contributing factor

J Intellect Disabil Res. 2012 May;56(5):441-52. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2788.2011.01484.x. Epub 2011 Sep 15.


Background: In most individuals, injury results in activation of peripheral nociceptors (pain-sensing neurons of the peripheral nervous system) and amplification of central nervous system (CNS) pain pathways that serve as a disincentive to continue harmful behaviour; however, this may not be the case in some developmental disorders that cause intellectual disability (ID). Moreover, individuals affected by ID disorders may initiate self-injurious behaviour to address irritating or painful sensations. In normal individuals, a negative feedback loop decreases sensation of pain, which involves descending inhibitory neurons in the CNS that attenuate spinal nociceptive processing. If spinal nociceptive signalling is impaired in these developmental disorders, an exaggerated painful stimulus may be required in order to engage descending anti-nociceptive signals.

Methods: Using electronic databases, we conducted a review of publications regarding the incidence of chronic pain or altered pain sensation in ID patients or corresponding preclinical models.

Results: There is a body of evidence indicating that individuals with fragile X mental retardation and/or Rett syndrome have altered pain sensation. These findings in humans are supported by mechanistic studies using genetically modified mice harbouring mutations consistent with the human disease. Thus, once self-injurious behaviour is initiated, the signal to stop may be missing. Several developmental disorders that cause ID are associated with increased incidence of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which can cause severe visceral pain. Individuals affected by these disorders who also have GERD may self-injure as a mechanism to engage descending inhibitory circuits to quell visceral pain. In keeping with this hypothesis, pharmacological treatment of GERD has been shown to be effective for reducing self-injurious behaviour in some patients. Hence, multiple lines of evidence suggest aberrant nociceptive processing in developmental disorders that cause ID.

Conclusions: There is evidence that pain pathways and pain amplification mechanisms are altered in several preclinical models of developmental disorders that cause ID. We present hypotheses regarding how impaired pain pathways or chronic pain might contribute to self-injurious behaviour. Studies evaluating the relationship between pain and self-injurious behaviour will provide better understanding of the mechanisms underlying self-injurious behaviour in the ID population and may lead to more effective treatments.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Afferent Pathways / physiopathology
  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Intellectual Disability / physiopathology*
  • Nociceptors / physiology
  • Pain / complications*
  • Pain / physiopathology*
  • Self-Injurious Behavior / etiology*
  • Self-Injurious Behavior / physiopathology*
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*