Kathryn Cullen, MD, is a University of Minnesota Physicians (M Physicians) psychiatrist for children and adolescents. Dr. Cullen has always been interested in brain development and the underpinnings of psychiatric disorders, which often emerge during adolescence.

Now, she and others are working to better understand adolescent depression and self-injury through the BRIDGES (Brain Research in Development of Girl’s Emotional Self) study, which focuses on the biological trajectories of brain development in adolescent girls who present with non-suicidal self-injury. 

“Since I’ve been in my career, awareness of self-injury has grown. Trying to understand it and intervene has become such a high priority,” Dr. Cullen said.

The BRIDGES study is designed to create new knowledge about neurobiology and brain development in girls with self-injury and gain data that could lead to better clinical practices, such as environmental interventions, changes in medication or psychotherapy. 

Megan, a former participant in the BRIDGES study, struggled with mental health beginning at a young age, and began seeing specialists in seventh grade. She’s seen numerous therapists and has been hospitalized five times for suicide attempts. 

She says the study has provided her with an opportunity to help others by allowing a team of physicians and scientists to learn from her and 150 other adolescent girls. This research, she hopes, will benefit all mental health practitioners and help advance treatment development by providing scientists with biological targets to design new treatments. 

Before joining BRIDGES, Megan didn’t know what to expect, but she found it was a positive experience. “It was actually super friendly and casual. It definitely wasn’t scary getting into it.” 

She also felt good about contributing to science and helping others saying, “You feel good leaving it because you feel like you accomplished something. I knew it was going to be different, but any opportunity to help, I wanted to jump at.”

Families who participate in BRIDGES experience additional benefits, including receiving feedback about the results of the clinical evaluation, and they also receive a copy of one of their brain scans. Participants also say their involvement instills hope for many and demonstrates that by examining biology, physicians can ultimately understand these behaviors and treat them better.

“It provides a new perspective on mental health, likening it to other health areas of medicine, by emphasizing that thoughts and feelings are rooted in the brain, which can be studied like any other organ of the body."

Dr. Kathryn Cullen

When data collection is complete, Dr. Cullen and her team will perform longitudinal analyses to see how the brain circuits change over time. This knowledge will hopefully give physicians better intuition about how and when to intervene with their patients.

Megan emphasized the importance of seeking help for mental health issues from experts like Dr. Cullen and described therapy as a crucial step for many who struggle with mental health. 

“I feel like everyone should see a therapist in general. Everyone needs someone to talk to,” she said.

More Information

Depression is a complex phenomenon involving several areas of the brain and the connections among them. Research at the University of Minnesota is looking at what goes wrong with these networks and if we can develop ways to make them work normally again.

Learn more about Dr. Cullen's work in the latest edition of "Where Discovery Creates Hope" from the Star Tribune. Link to the full story