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Dissociative symptoms present transdiagnostically and are related to poor clinical outcome. Research into the biological correlates of dissociation remains limited. This editorial summarises and discusses papers from this themed series of BJPsych Open that contribute to unravelling the biological correlates of dissociative symptomatology with the aim of improving treatment and treatment outcome.
Studies have reported elevated rates of dissociative symptoms and comorbid dissociative disorders in functional neurological disorder (FND); however, a comprehensive review is lacking.
To systematically review the severity of dissociative symptoms and prevalence of comorbid dissociative disorders in FND and summarise their biological and clinical associations.
We searched Embase, PsycInfo and MEDLINE up to June 2021, combining terms for FND and dissociation. Studies were eligible if reporting dissociative symptom scores or rates of comorbid dissociative disorder in FND samples. Risk of bias was appraised using modified Newcastle–Ottawa criteria. The findings were synthesised qualitatively and dissociative symptom scores were included in a meta-analysis (PROSPERO CRD42020173263).
Seventy-five studies were eligible (FND n = 3940; control n = 3073), most commonly prospective case–control studies (k = 54). Dissociative disorders were frequently comorbid in FND. Psychoform dissociation was elevated in FND compared with healthy (g = 0.90, 95% CI 0.66–1.14, I2 = 70%) and neurological controls (g = 0.56, 95% CI 0.19–0.92, I2 = 67%). Greater psychoform dissociation was observed in FND samples with seizure symptoms versus healthy controls (g = 0.94, 95% CI 0.65–1.22, I2 = 42%) and FND samples with motor symptoms (g = 0.40, 95% CI −0.18 to 1.00, I2 = 54%). Somatoform dissociation was elevated in FND versus healthy controls (g = 1.80, 95% CI 1.25–2.34, I2 = 75%). Dissociation in FND was associated with more severe functional symptoms, worse quality of life and brain alterations.
Our findings highlight the potential clinical utility of assessing patients with FND for dissociative symptomatology. However, fewer studies investigated FND samples with motor symptoms and heterogeneity between studies and risk of bias were high. Rigorous investigation of the prevalence, features and mechanistic relevance of dissociation in FND is needed.
Memory function is at the core of the psychopathology of dissociative identity disorder (DID), but little is known about its psychobiological correlates.
This study aims to investigate whether memory function in DID differs between dissociative identity states
Behavioural data and neural activation patterns were assessed in 92 sessions during an n-back working memory task. Participants were people with genuine diagnosed DID (n = 14), DID-simulating controls (n = 16) and a paired control group (post-traumatic stress disorder (n = 16), healthy controls (n = 16)). Both DID groups participated as authentic or simulated neutral and trauma-related identity states. Reaction times and errors of omission were analysed with repeated measures ANOVA. Working memory neural activation (main working memory and linear load) was investigated for effects of identity state, participant group and their interaction.
Identity state-dependent behavioural performance and neural activation was found. DID simulators made fewer errors of omission than those with genuine DID. Regarding the prefrontal parietal network, main working memory in the left frontal pole and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (Brodmann area 44) was activated in all three simulated neutral states, and in trauma-related identity states of DID simulators, but not those with genuine DID or post-traumatic stress disorder; for linear load, trauma-related identity states of those with genuine DID did not engage the parietal regions.
Behavioural performance and neural activation patterns related to working memory in DID are dependent on the dissociative identities involved. The narrowed consciousness of trauma-related identity states, with a proneness to re-experiencing traumatising events, may relate to poorer working memory functioning.
Studies investigating the structure of the amygdala in relation to dissociation in psychiatric disorders are limited and have reported normal or preserved, increased or decreased global volumes. Thus, a more detailed investigation of the amygdala is warranted. Amygdala global and subregional volumes were compared between individuals with dissociative identity disorder (DID: n = 32) and healthy controls (n = 42). Analyses of covariance did not show volumetric differences between the DID and control groups. Although several unknowns make it challenging to interpret our findings, we propose that the finding of normal amygdala volume is a genuine finding because other studies using this data-set have presented robust morphological aberrations in relation to the diagnosis of DID.
Little is known about the neural correlates of dissociative amnesia, a transdiagnostic symptom mostly present in the dissociative disorders and core characteristic of dissociative identity disorder (DID). Given the vital role of the hippocampus in memory, a prime candidate for investigation is whether total and/or subfield hippocampal volume can serve as biological markers of dissociative amnesia.
A total of 75 women, 32 with DID and 43 matched healthy controls (HC), underwent structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Using Freesurfer (version 6.0), volumes were extracted for bilateral global hippocampus, cornu ammonis (CA) 1–4, the granule cell molecular layer of the dentate gyrus (GC-ML-DG), fimbria, hippocampal−amygdaloid transition area (HATA), parasubiculum, presubiculum and subiculum. Analyses of covariance showed volumetric differences between DID and HC. Partial correlations exhibited relationships between the three factors of the dissociative experience scale scores (dissociative amnesia, absorption, depersonalisation/derealisation) and traumatisation measures with hippocampal global and subfield volumes.
Hippocampal volumes were found to be smaller in DID as compared with HC in bilateral global hippocampus and bilateral CA1, right CA4, right GC-ML-DG, and left presubiculum. Dissociative amnesia was the only dissociative symptom that correlated uniquely and significantly with reduced bilateral hippocampal CA1 subfield volumes. Regarding traumatisation, only emotional neglect correlated negatively with bilateral global hippocampus, bilateral CA1, CA4 and GC-ML-DG, and right CA3.
We propose decreased CA1 volume as a biomarker for dissociative amnesia. We also propose that traumatisation, specifically emotional neglect, is interlinked with dissociative amnesia in having a detrimental effect on hippocampal volume.
Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is a severely debilitating disorder. Despite recognition in the current and past versions of the DSM, DID remains a controversial psychiatric disorder, which hampers its diagnosis and treatment. Neurobiological evidence regarding the aetiology of DID supports clinical observations that it is a severe form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
A diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder (DID) is controversial and prone to under- and misdiagnosis. From the moment of seeking treatment for symptoms to the time of an accurate diagnosis of DID individuals received an average of four prior other diagnoses and spent 7 years, with reports of up to 12 years, in mental health services.
To investigate whether data-driven pattern recognition methodologies applied to structural brain images can provide biomarkers to aid DID diagnosis.
Structural brain images of 75 participants were included: 32 female individuals with DID and 43 matched healthy controls. Individuals with DID were recruited from psychiatry and psychotherapy out-patient clinics. Probabilistic pattern classifiers were trained to discriminate cohorts based on measures of brain morphology.
The pattern classifiers were able to accurately discriminate between individuals with DID and healthy controls with high sensitivity (72%) and specificity (74%) on the basis of brain structure. These findings provide evidence for a biological basis for distinguishing between DID-affected and healthy individuals.
We propose a pattern of neuroimaging biomarkers that could be used to inform the identification of individuals with DID from healthy controls at the individual level. This is important and clinically relevant because the DID diagnosis is controversial and individuals with DID are often misdiagnosed. Ultimately, the application of pattern recognition methodologies could prevent unnecessary suffering of individuals with DID because of an earlier accurate diagnosis, which will facilitate faster and targeted interventions.
Declaration of interest
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
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