Decreased Amygdalar Activation to NSSI-Stimuli in People Who Engage in NSSI: A Neuroimaging Pilot Study

Front Psychiatry. 2020 Apr 2;11:238. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00238. eCollection 2020.


In healthy individuals, stimuli associated with injury (such as those depicting blood or wounds) tend to evoke negative responses on both self-report and psychophysiological measures. Such an instinctive aversion makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. However, to engage in nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI), this natural barrier must be overcome. The Benefits and Barriers model of NSSI predicts that people who engage in NSSI will show diminished aversion to NSSI-related stimuli compared to controls who do not engage in NSSI. We tested this hypothesis in a pilot study assessing 30 adults, 15 of whom reported current skin cutting and 15 of whom had no history of NSSI. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data were collected while participants viewed neutral, positive, and negative images selected from the International Affective Picture System. Participants also viewed NSSI images depicting razors, scalpels, or wounds caused by cutting. Compared to healthy control (HC) participants, the NSSI group showed decreased amygdala and increased cingulate cortex (CC) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) activation to NSSI and negative images. They also showed increased amygdalar and OFC activation to positive images. Neither the control group nor the NSSI group demonstrated significant activation within regions more typically associated with reward during any of the conditions; however, positive and negative affect ratings collected throughout the course of the task suggested that none of the affective conditions were viewed as rewarding. Although preliminary, these findings are suggestive of reduced limbic and greater cortical processing of NSSI stimuli in those with a history of this behavior. This has potentially important implications for current models of NSSI as well as for its treatment.

Keywords: amygdala; emotional processing; functional magnetic resonance imaging; nonsuicidal self-injury; self-harm.