The role of anxiety in vulnerability for self-injurious behaviour: studies in a rodent model

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Self-injurious behaviour (SIB) is a debilitating characteristic that is highly prevalent in autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. Pathological anxiety is also common, and there are reports of comorbid anxiety and self-injury in some children. We have investigated potential interactions between anxiety and self-injury, using a rat model of pemoline-induced self-biting. In one experiment, rats were pre-screened for trait anxiety by measuring expression of anxiety-related behaviour on the elevated plus maze and open field emergence test. The rats were then treated with pemoline once daily for ten days, and vulnerability for pemoline-induced self-injury was evaluated. This revealed modest correlations between innate levels of anxiety-related behaviour in the open field test (time in the start box, and latency to enter the open field), and vulnerability for pemoline-induced self-biting (total duration of self-injurious oral contact, and total size of tissue injury). Measures in the elevated plus maze were not significantly correlated with vulnerability for pemoline-induced self-injury. In a second experiment, rats were treated with the beta-carboline FG 7142 twice daily, during 5 days of treatment with pemoline. The rats that were treated with this anxiogenic drug exhibited greater duration of self-injurious oral contact, and larger injuries than vehicle-treated controls did. Overall, these results suggest that anxiety may contribute to the etiology and/or expression of self-injurious behaviour, and indicate that further research is warranted.

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