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Brain Anatomy May Predetermine Suicide Risk


In October of 2019, researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago identified differences in brain circuitry that may relate to suicidal behavior within individuals with mood disorders. Therefore, this study offers an encouraging lead towards developing tools that may predict which individuals are at the highest risk for suicide. 

Suicide rates are steadily increasing, particularly among individuals with mood disorders like depression. Over half of those individuals who committed suicide sought medical help from a health professional within the previous 30 days, but not necessarily for their mood issues. Although urgent care facilities and emergency departments may ask screening questions dealing with mood and psychological health, suicide rates are on the rise. 

Currently, self-reporting and health-provider judgment are the only ways to identify individuals who may be at high risk for suicide-related behavior. Although that is a good starting point, it is not sufficient for identifying those suffering and in need of help. Stigma and fear of subsequent judgment or consequences may lead those who experience suicidal thoughts or ideations not to report these incidents to their health care providers. Therefore, these negative thoughts and feelings go unreported and undetected, leading to detrimental consequences. 

The Previous Research Finds Brain Circuits Related to Mood Disorders 

Prior studies identified brain circuits related to mood disorders. 

  • The cognitive control network (CCN) deals with attention, problem-solving, decision-making, impulsivity, other high-level cognitive processes, and working memory (which is the part of short-term memory that is involved with the immediate conscious feeling and language processing)
  • The salience and emotional network (SEN) deals with emotion regulation and processing. Since it is the control center for emotions in the brain, it delivers signals between the areas of the brain that regulate how we respond, react, and act to situations through our thoughts and feelings. 
  • The default-mode network (DMN) is the opposite of the CCN, in that it deals with the wandering mind, retrieving long-term memory, and self-reflection. It is active when individuals engage in self-focused thought.   

The Study

The current study utilized four groups:

  • individuals with a history of suicide attempts and mood disorders
  • Individuals with a history of suicidal thoughts and mood disorders
  • Individuals with mood disorders, but no history of suicidal thoughts or behaviors
  • A healthy control group with no mood disorders or a history of suicidal thoughts or behaviors

The researchers used functional MRI’s to capture brain images of calm and rested patients. This process allowed the researchers to assess circuit connectivity within the brain at base levels. The study found that the group with a history of suicide attempts showed less connection within their cognitive control network (CCN), which involves decision-making and problem-solving. 

Furthermore, there was less connectivity between the CCN and the default-mode network (DMN) within this group. Therefore, there was a limited connection between the parts of their brains that deal with decision-making and self-reflection/thought. These variations may present a target for treatment within the neurons of the brain. Science could find a way to improve connectivity between the CCN and the DMN to reduce suicide risk for the future. 

The Limits of the Study and Where to Go from Here

This type of research is still new, and this was a small study. Since it consisted of only 18 participants with histories of suicide attempts and mood disorders, it will need replication among a new and larger sample. Furthermore, the results of the study do not confirm that individuals at risk for suicide with mood disorders have a different mental illness than those without the risk for suicide, or whether every individual with a mood disorder is at risk of suicide. Furthermore, the study focused on past events, such as previous suicide attempts. Also, the MRI scans did not occur during the suicide attempts, so the images the researchers studied may not represent what the brain looks like during an actual suicidal episode. 

This type of research requires a longitudinal study or one that involves repeating observations and analysis of the same group of people over a specific period. The researchers could measure brain circuits in the beginning and check in regularly with patients to see how they are doing. In this case, it may be beneficial to follow individuals at the beginning of their diagnosis of a mood disorder and then follow their journeys for a few years, so that MRI’s may be taken multiple times for the same individual. This way, the researchers could identify how the brain changes during suicidal episodes and compare that data with previous research. This data will provide an improved idea of which risk factors to monitor at the clinical level, and when there should be medical interventions.

Feeling Lost and Looking for Help?

  Past research on suicide and its risk among individuals create a foundation for future research to build upon and may lead to life-saving interventions at the neurological and psychological levels. Studies such as this help researchers guide their studies to cater to the needs of the population and those who have mental illness, suicidal ideations, and substance use disorders that regularly accompany these issues. Prevention of mental illness, related suicidal thoughts, and subsequent substance use disorders are vital to improving the health of all individuals in this modern, fast-paced society. If you or someone you know is contending with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, call Enlightened Solutions today at 833-801-LIVE.