Six projects awarded £1.25 million for research into eating disorders and self-harm

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A charity partnership between the Medical Research Foundation (MRF) and the Medical Research Council (MRC) has awarded £1.25 million to six projects researching eating disorders and self-harm among children and young people.

Eating disorders are life-threatening illnesses that start in adolescence and affect 15 per cent of young women and up to 4 per cent of young men.

A survey of 15- and 16-year-olds estimated that more than 10 per cent of girls and over 3 per cent of boys had self-harmed in the previous year. Self-harm is a strong risk factor for suicide and increases the likelihood that the person will die by suicide by between 50- and 100-fold.

Despite their detrimental impact on the lives of those affected and their families, there is a comparatively small proportion of research focused on understanding the drivers of these behaviours. The two-year grants aim to further understanding of the causes of and associated traits linked to these conditions and inform future prevention and treatment studies.

The six projects will exploit existing resources and cohort studies, which hold detailed information about the health of large groups of people. Dr Becky Mars, Senior Research Associate at the University of Bristol, and Dr Nadia Micali, NIHR Clinician Scientist at University College London, will make use of data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), a world-leading birth cohort study which has recorded the health of 14,500 families over two decades.

Professor Hugh Perry, Chair of the MRC Neurosciences and Mental Health Board and Professor of Experimental Neuropathology within Biological Sciences at the University of Southampton, said:

Eating disorders and self-harm are common but insights into the underlying causes of these disorders are very limited. It is important that we take a multidisciplinary approach to understand the biological, social and psychological factors that lead to and sustain these complex conditions. The projects funded by the Medical Research Foundation and the MRC will contribute to our understanding of these disorders and pave the way for further projects in this area drawing on expertise from across the UK.

Dr Angela Hind, the Medical Research Foundation’s Director, said:

The Medical Research Foundation has joined with the MRC to stimulate and fund new research which we hope will make a difference to children and young adults living with mental ill health. There is very little UK-led research on the causes of eating disorders and self-harm and yet they are having an increasing and devastating impact on young people and their families. We hope this research will not only enable us to understand the causes of these conditions but will lead to larger-scale studies that will ultimately result in better targeted treatments.

The six projects, which are based at three UK universities, are:

University of Bristol
Dr Becky Mars will investigate whether bad experiences in early life — such as physical and sexual abuse, or emotional neglect — are associated with specific biological processes. The study will explore whether these factors are linked with self-harm in adolescents. Based on data from ALSPAC, the research could help identify potential markers to indicate future risk of self-harm and possible treatments for young people who self-harm.

University College London
Dr Nadia Micali will study the role that metabolism and growth play in the development of eating disorders. The project will explore if specific changes in metabolic function, appetite and growth factors lead to the onset of eating disorders. Identifying risk factors for adolescent and young-adult eating disorders could lead to larger and more detailed studies in future.

Dr Sunjeev Kamboj will use new behavioural techniques to help treat binge eating disorder, focusing on ‘rewriting’ reward memories. Reward memories, in response to food cues, may play a key role in binge eating disorder. Techniques shown to help reduce addicts’ responses to drug cues could also have an effect on binge eating behaviour. The findings could in future support people seeking help for binge eating disorder.​

King’s College London
Dr Sylvane Desrivieres aims to understand how dysfunctional eating behaviours develop, in order to identify factors which may occur before the appearance of an eating disorder. Using the IMAGEN dataset, a cohort of 2,000 young people studied from the age of 14, the team will identify possible risk factors involved in the development of eating disorders, which could inform future prevention and treatment strategies.

Dr Dennis Ougrin will investigate the link between pain and self-harm, and whether people at risk of self-harm have a different level of pain sensitivity. The study will look at whether a system in the brain involved in pain is associated with self-harm. Knowledge of pain sensitivity could improve understanding of self-harm and lead to future prevention and treatment studies.

Dr Kate Tchanturia will study adolescent anorexia nervosa patients with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) symptoms when they first present for treatment. Given the overlap in symptoms of these conditions, ASD symptoms may affect anorexia nervosa recovery. The research aims to identify vulnerable patients, at an early stage, who may be unlikely to respond to current treatment, and could shape individualised support and treatment strategies.

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