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New investment in eating disorders and self-harm research

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The Medical Research Foundation and the Medical Research Council (MRC) have together awarded over £2.7 million of funding for new research into eating disorders and self-harm.

Seven researchers, based at five UK universities, will explore a range of potential factors, including the role of social media and smartphone use, difficulty managing emotions and behaviour, sensitivity to rewards and punishment, poor sleep, and the overlap with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Despite an increase in young people affected by eating disorders and self-harm, there is still limited research focusing on what causes these devastating mental health problems. As many as one in six teenagers have self-harmed at some point, and self-harm is the strongest known risk factor for suicide. Eating disorders are also common, affecting around 15 per cent of young women and over three per cent of young men.

Although up to half of people with an eating disorder have self-harmed, we also know little about why these mental health problems often occur together.

Building on a previous £1.3 million investment in eating disorders and self-harm research by the Foundation and the MRC (part of UK Research and Innovation), these new research projects will improve our understanding of what causes these conditions and ultimately, it is hoped these insights will lead to earlier intervention and better treatments.


Dr Rina Dutta from King’s College London will study the mechanisms of social media and smartphone use that might underpin self-harm in young people. A combination of factors could increase risk of self-harm, including excessive use, night-time use or cyberbullying. The project will also investigate how self-harm is related to smartphone addiction, sleep quality, depression, anxiety, loneliness and bullying over a one-year follow-up period. It is hoped that a better understanding of these factors will help with preventing future episodes of self-harm and developing targeted interventions.

Dr Helen Bould from the University of Bristol is exploring why eating disorders and self-harm occur

Helen-Bould.jpg#asset:6185together by studying a characteristic often seen in both mental health problems – difficulty managing emotions. Currently, we do not know whether people with an eating disorder find managing emotions difficult because they have an eating disorder, or whether difficulty managing emotions is one of the reasons they develop an eating disorder. Similar gaps in our knowledge exist in relation to people who engage in self-harm; we do not know whether difficulties managing emotions occur before self-harming behaviour starts. This research could help to identify early signs of risk, and could also aid the development of new treatments.


Dr Amy Harrison and colleagues from UCL (Prof Eirini Flouri and Dr Marta Francesconi) are using data collected by the Millennium Cohort Study to explore whether reward and punishment sensitivity in childhood and early adolescence play a role in the development of eating disorders in later adolescence. This work will enhance our understanding of the extent to which a psychological factor, currently identified in the acute and remitted phases of the illness, may contribute to illness development. This new knowledge will then be shared to improve illness understanding and detection.

Dr Sylvane Desrivières from King’s College London is identifying risk factors for eating disorders,

Sylvane-Desrivieres.jpg#asset:5890including behaviour related to reward and punishment, cognitive control and emotional processes, to better understand how they contribute to development of specific aspects of the disorders. These insights will help to improve prevention and treatment of eating disorders.


As many as one in two autistic children who have an intellectual disability (ID) will self-harm, and in most cases this behaviour persists beyond childhood. Dr Caroline Richards from the University of Birmingham will investigate two potential causes or drivers of self-harm in autistic children with ID. The first is problems with stopping and starting certain behaviours, otherwise known as inhibition. The second is poor sleep, and the researchers will investigate whether these two factors lead to more frequent and more severe self-harm. These findings will inform interventions for self-harm, with sleep and inhibition as possible new, preventative intervention targets.


Dr Kate Tchanturia from King’s College London is building on her previous Medical Research Foundation and MRC-funded study, ‘The Triple A study (Adolescents with Anorexia and Autism symptoms)’. She will revisit participants from this study to predict the likelihood and length of recovery from anorexia nervosa and examine the independent, but interlinked, effects of anorexia, autism symptoms, and ageing. By understanding the underlying mechanisms which underpin illness development, this research will aid the development of targeted interventions both national and internationally. More broadly, this work could pave the way to reducing stigma and shame around anorexia nervosa, and create a greater recognition of its interaction with autism spectrum disorders.

Professor Rory O’Connor from the University of Glasgow is studying the relationship between emotion processing and self-harm, to

RorySAMH.jpg#asset:6179better understand the transition from thoughts of self-harm to acts of self-harm. Professor O’Connor will measure the electrical conductance of the skin (sweat produced by the fingers or palms) as a physiological index of emotion processing under different conditions, to see if this distinguishes young people who have self-harm thoughts from those who have self-harmed. The research findings will increase understanding of the complex pathways to self-harm and potentially suicide, reduce the risk of future self-harm and suicide, and identify treatment targets for clinical intervention.

These research projects have been made possible by a generous legacy from the late Catherine Evans.

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