What do nonsuicidal self-injury and eating disorders have in common? According to psychologists, the two conditions frequently co-occur, but it hasn’t been clear exactly why or how they’re connected.
A collaboration between Kenneth J.D. Allen ’09, visiting assistant professor of psychology, and director of the Cognition, Affect, Self-Regulation, & Health (C.A.S.H.) Laboratory, and McLean Sammon ’19, a neuroscience and psychology major, explored the conditions. Their findings were published in the article “Emotional Response Inhibition: A Shared Neurocognitive Deficit in Eating Disorder Symptoms and Nonsuicidal Self-Injury” in the international peer-reviewed journal on neuroscience, Brain Sciences.
Allen and Sammon designed and conducted a research study in more than 100 adults, which found that these two conditions both share what psychologists would call “neurocognitive deficits” in emotional impulse control.
Emotional impulse control refers to “...being able to inhibit emotional reactions that are negative...when we want to inhibit them. Some of us have stronger emotional reactions and a more difficult time controlling them. And that seems to be a shared process in these two different forms of self-destructive behavior,” Allen explains.
This research has implications both in the short-term and long-term. People with binge eating and restrictive eating might look quite different from people who are cutting themselves or burning themselves, but they share deficits in emotional processing that can be measured objectively. So, in the short term, the research tells us something about the shared origins of those two very distinct syndromes.
“But the big-picture goal is, of course, to alleviate suffering associated with self-harm behaviors,” says Allen. “And I envision our research helping move science towards that goal by developing these objective tests or tools that might be able to detect risk in young people before they develop any sort of symptoms or problems.”
Allen also notes that nonsuicidal self-injury is one of the best predictors of future suicide attempts, and the pair’s research examines the underlying mechanisms for that risk.
For Sammon, the opportunity has given her valuable experience. “We have extremely strong science programs that rival some of the best schools in the country, but we have no graduate students. This leaves so much room for undergraduates to get a ton of experience and work closely with brilliant professors who often become mentors,” she says.
Currently, Sammon coordinates Allen’s lab while also working to launch a business with another Oberlin alum. She is preparing to get a master’s degree in psychology.
“In the next few months, I am going to apply for clinical psychology research assistant positions, and after a year or two of additional research experience, I will apply to a clinical psychology PhD program,” Sammon says. “Ken has been an invaluable mentor and has made efforts to connect me with his colleagues and hopes that I will attend his alma mater in a few years. My research experiences at Oberlin have been truly formative.”
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