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Behaviors typical of body-focused repetitive behavior disorders such as trichotillomania (TTM) and skin-picking disorder (SPD) are often associated with pleasure or relief, and with little or no physical pain, suggesting aberrant pain perception. Conclusive evidence about pain perception and correlates in these conditions is, however, lacking.
A multisite international study examined pain perception and its physiological correlates in adults with TTM (n = 31), SPD (n = 24), and healthy controls (HCs; n = 26). The cold pressor test was administered, and measurements of pain perception and cardiovascular parameters were taken every 15 seconds. Pain perception, latency to pain tolerance, cardiovascular parameters and associations with illness severity, and comorbid depression, as well as interaction effects (group × time interval), were investigated across groups.
There were no group differences in pain ratings over time (P = .8) or latency to pain tolerance (P = .8). Illness severity was not associated with pain ratings (all P > .05). In terms of diastolic blood pressure (DBP), the main effect of group was statistically significant (P = .01), with post hoc analyses indicating higher mean DBP in TTM (95% confidence intervals [CI], 84.0-93.5) compared to SPD (95% CI, 73.5-84.2; P = .01), and HCs (95% CI, 75.6-86.0; P = .03). Pain perception did not differ between those with and those without depression (TTM: P = .2, SPD: P = .4).
The study findings were mostly negative suggesting that general pain perception aberration is not involved in TTM and SPD. Other underlying drivers of hair-pulling and skin-picking behavior (eg, abnormal reward processing) should be investigated.
Trichotillomania (TTM) and skin picking disorder (SPD) are common and often debilitating mental health conditions, grouped under the umbrella term of body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs). Recent clinical subtyping found that there were three distinct subtypes of TTM and two of SPD. Whether these clinical subtypes map on to any unique neurobiological underpinnings, however, remains unknown.
Two hundred and fifty one adults [193 with a BFRB (85.5% [n = 165] female) and 58 healthy controls (77.6% [n = 45] female)] were recruited from the community for a multicenter between-group comparison using structural neuroimaging. Differences in whole brain structure were compared across the subtypes of BFRBs, controlling for age, sex, scanning site, and intracranial volume.
When the subtypes of TTM were compared, low awareness hair pullers demonstrated increased cortical volume in the lateral occipital lobe relative to controls and sensory sensitive pullers. In addition, impulsive/perfectionist hair pullers showed relative decreased volume near the lingual gyrus of the inferior occipital–parietal lobe compared with controls.
These data indicate that the anatomical substrates of particular forms of BFRBs are dissociable, which may have implications for understanding clinical presentations and treatment response.