New hope for self-injury sufferers

Communication training, drug therapy combination greatly reduces or eliminates disorder

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - People who routinely injure themselves may do so in order to stimulate a release of feel-good chemicals in the brain, and most of those sufferers can now be helped with an innovative combination of two therapies, according to Travis Thompson, director of Vanderbilt University's John F. Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development.

Thompson is scheduled to present his findings on self-injury as the keynote speaker at the prestigious British Intellectual and Learning Disabilities (BILD) Conference in London Sept. 14.

Thompson and his colleagues have concluded that many of the estimated 50,000 to 300,000 Americans with developmental disabilities who injure themselves with acts such as head banging and self-biting do so either as a primitive form of communication or to stimulate the release of beta endorphins (the brain's natural "morphine") in the brain. Thompson's latest research indicates that sufferers can be helped dramatically by combining communication training with a regimen of the drug naltrexone, which blocks the brain's opiate receptors.

"This particular combination of therapies works because many people with severe disabilities self-injure either as a means of communicating basic needs or wants or because doing so releases beta endorphin," said Thompson, a professor of psychology, special education and psychiatry at Vanderbilt. "If you can provide an alternative form of communication that they understand, they will do that instead of self-injuring. And by combining two treatments - augmentative communication training and naltrexone - it appears we can greatly reduce or stop self-injury in most cases."

Naltrexone works by blocking the brain's opiate receptors, Thompson explained, so that when beta endorphin is released following self-

Contact: Peggy Shaw
Vanderbilt University

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