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Generational study looks for biological links between adverse childhood experiences and self-harm

Press release issued: 5 September 2019

New research from the University of Bristol is the first to use a large generational family study to examine links between childhood trauma, the impact of inflammation and self-harm.

Epidemiologists examined 4300 young people in Bristol’s Children of the 90s study to see if adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as experiencing abuse, witnessing domestic violence or having separated parents are linked to self-harm at the age of 16. 

While there is existing evidence to link ACEs and teenage self-harm it was not known if biological inflammation, sparked by the ‘fight or flight’ response to stress, could help to explain this association. Previous work has looked at adversity and inflammatory markers and at inflammation and self-harm but this is the first study to look at all three together. Research looking at inflammation and self-harm in young people is also rare as the vast majority of studies are on adult samples.

They found that for each extra type of ACE, a young person is 11 per cent more likely to self-harm at the age of 16, and 22 per cent more likely to have self-harmed with suicidal intent. Researchers did not find any evidence that levels of inflammation taken from blood samples at the age of 10 years old were associated with childhood trauma and self-harm.

Published today (Thursday 5 September) in a special edition of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, this research is one of several studies funded by the Medical Research Foundation and the Medical Research Council (MRC) to examine the biological underpinnings of self-harm in teenagers.

Lead author Senior Research Associate in Epidemiology Abby Russell will be taking part in a webinar for the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health on Friday 6 September to mark the special issue of the Journal.  She said:

“This is the first study to directly examine whether the relationship between adverse childhood experiences and self-harm is due to inflammation.   

“Our findings confirm that ACEs are a useful indicator of an increased risk of teenage self-harm. By making use of a large longitudinal study we were also able to conclude that inflammatory markers in childhood are probably not a good indicator of risk of later self-harm.  

 “This is all helpful to direct future research towards alternative biological and psychological pathways for the risk of self-harm and suicide. It also provides more evidence of the importance of preventing children from experiencing adversity, supporting the need for local authority initiatives like Bristol City Council who are developing an ACE-aware city, with interventions to help protect the mental health of future generations.”

Paper: Pathways between early life adversity and adolescent self-harm; the mediating role of inflammation in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) by Abigail Russell, Jon Heron, David Gunnell, et 

Further information

  1. Based at the University of Bristol, Children of the 90s, also known as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), is a long-term health research project that enrolled more than 14,000 pregnant women in 1991 and 1992. It has been following the health and development of the parents, their children and now their grandchildren in detail ever since. It receives core funding from the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the University of Bristol.
  2. The Medical Research Foundation invests directly in medical research – donations to the Foundation are never spent on campaigning, advocacy, or support services. They identify research priorities according to gaps in understanding, or specific donor priorities. At the moment their research priorities are adolescent mental health and antimicrobial resistance research. Together with the Medical Research Council, they have awarded £4 million of funding for research into eating disorders and self-harm since 2017.
  3. The live stream to mark the special edition of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry will take place at 3pm on Friday 6thSeptember here:
  4. For more information on making Bristol an ACE-aware city visit
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