Are Brains of Suicidal People Different?

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Suicide is a serious problem in the United States. In 2010, over 38,000 people killed themselves, according to the CDC. On average, that's over 100 people per day. We don't really understand suicide.

What, if anything, makes suicidal people different from others? Is it environmental factors such as losing a job or loved one, or is it differences in brain structure or function that make people respond to such negative occurrences by taking their own lives?

A new project will attempt to tease apart factors that might differentiate the brains of suicide-prone individuals from others.

Dr. Carlos Zarate and colleagues at the National Institutes of Health plan to examine the structure and function of the brains of 50 people who tried to commit suicide (unsuccessfully, of course) in the two weeks before they joined the study. They will be compared to the brains of several other groups 40 people who attempted suicide over a year previously; 40 people who were depressed or anxious, but had never tried to kill themselves; and 4o healthy people.

Also, the people with recent suicide attempts will be treated with ketamine, a drug that can arrest suicidal thoughts and behavior (but not depression). This effect has been suggested to mean that the drug somehow affects the parts of the brain that are involved in suicidal thinking, but the exact mechanism isn't known.

This project should shed some light on whether or not there are actually built-in differences in brain circuitry that could lead a person to consider suicide in response to negative life events.

There is some evidence that genetics can influence a person's risk of suicide but where does that influence reside? Are there differences in genes that can be detected, differences in neurotransmitters? Are people with schizophrenia, or those who are prone to impulsive actions, more likely to be at increased risk? The planned study should shed light on some of these questions, and help enable physicians to determine who might be in need of intervention to help prevent a suicide attempt.

Other researchers are looking at specific neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, and comparing the pattern seen in the brains of people who have attempted suicide with that of people who have not.

This is a very active area of research, and one that will hopefully develop new means of identifying and helping people who are prone to suicidal thoughts and actions.