Researchers at Yale University have identified certain abnormalities in the prefrontal cortex and other related brain regions in young people who have attempted suicide.
The findings, recently presented at the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology’s annual meeting, suggest that deficits in frontal systems may be linked to a greater risk for suicide attempts in teens with mood disorders.
Most suicide attempts occur in the presence of mood disorders, such as bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder. About three to four percent of the U.S. population suffers from bipolar disorder, and 25-50 percent of those affected attempt suicide; 15-20 percent of individuals with the disorder die from suicide.
Researchers hope to find earlier intervention techniques, as suicidal behavior usually emerges in adolescence. The development of new interventions, however, would require a better understanding of how features of brain structure and function are linked to the development of suicidal behaviors.
For the study, the researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to get a better look at the structure of the brain.
The Yale research team examined the brain structure and function of adolescents and young adults, aged 14 to 25 years. Sixty-eight participants with bipolar disorder, of whom 26 had attempted suicide, were compared with 45 healthy volunteers matched for age and gender.
The findings reveal that, compared with healthy control subjects and also bipolar patients who did not attempt suicide, the suicidal young people displayed less integrity of white matter in key frontal brain systems, including the uncinate fasciculus, a fiber tract that connects the frontal lobe with key brain areas responsible for emotion, motivation, and memory.
Furthermore, the abnormalities in the structural connections were linked to weaker connections between the prefrontal cortex and amygdale.
This suggests that the dysfunction in white matter disrupts the ability of these system components to work together. There were also links between the circuitry deficits and thoughts of suicide, the number of suicide attempts and the relative mortality of those suicide attempts.
These findings are a significant first step in understanding the neurobiology of how suicidal thoughts and behaviors are generated and may aid in the development of targeted interventions to prevent suicide.