Mental health

At a glance

Pathways to self-harm: Biological mechanisms and genetic contribution

Lead researcher

Dr Becky Mars


University of Bristol



Amount awarded


Last updated



The Medical Research Foundation-MRC funded study will explore whether bad experiences in early life – such as physical and sexual abuse, or emotional neglect – are associated with specific biological processes linked with self-harm in adolescents.

Young people who have had bad experiences early in life are more likely to self-harm. However, we do not yet understand how this works. We hope to understand more about the biological processes that might be involved, such as inflammation, changes to chemicals around genes, and hormones.
Dr Becky Mars
University of Bristol

Current research shows that facing bad experiences early in life (such as physical and sexual abuse, and emotional neglect) increases the chances that a young person will self-harm. However, we do not yet understand how this works. We know that the social environment can have an impact on the body's internal working, such as inflammation, changes to chemicals around genes, and hormones, and that these things in turn are involved in suicide and self-harm.

Dr Becky Mars from the University of Bristol has been awarded a research grant to investigate whether early bad experiences are associated with three different biological processes- inflammation, alterations to DNA, and puberty (stage and timing), and to explore whether these factors are, in turn, associated with self-harm in adolescence. This research could help to identify potential markers of future self-harm risk, as well as possible targets for treatment for young people who self-harm.

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Mental Health – Self-Harm

  • Why there is a need to fund new research

    Rates of self-harm have increased in the UK over the past decade and are among the highest in Europe. Rates are much higher among groups with high levels of poverty and in adolescents and younger adults. Repeated self-harm results in about 150,000 attendances at accident and emergency departments each year and is one of the top five causes of acute medical admission. Current understanding of these illnesses is limited, we think it is invaluable to understand why these illnesses occur in the first place, in order that approaches for prevention or early intervention can be developed and jointly with the Medical Research Council we have funded research to develop this understanding.

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