Could Two Brain Circuits Be Linked To Suicidal Thoughts (and Tendencies)?

Scientists are saying they have definitely identified two brain circuits that appear to be active among people who have suicidal thoughts. They now say this could raise hopes for helping those who are most at risk of killing themselves.  

Suicide, of course, claims a significant number of lives every year.  In fact, it is one of the most proficient killers in the world.  In 2018, 6,507 people in the United Kingdom, alone, took their own lives.  And among this population, males between the ages of 45 and 49 are most at risk. 

Data suggests, too, that men are three times more likely than women to attempt suicide; and men also tend to be more successful than women when it comes to these attempts.  Still, suicide rates among women are on a notable rise. 

All of this contributes to 800,000 suicide deaths, globally, every year; and it is the second leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 15 and 29.  

That said, scientists now say that twenty years of research has led them to find two key brain networks that may increase a person’s risk for, at the very least, suicidal thoughts.  Dr. Anne-Laura van Harmelen, of Cambridge University, comments, “Imagine having a disease that killed almost a million people a year, a quarter of them before the age of 30, and yet we knew nothing about why some individuals are more vulnerable to this disease.”

The study co-lead author goes on to say, “This is where we are with suicide. We know very little about what’s happening in the brain.”

To learn more about what could be happening in the brain when it comes to suicide, then, the researchers examined 131 existing studies that collected data from more than 12,000 people.  The goal was to find alterations in brain structure and function among those who have attempted suicide.  

Sure enough, the analysis identified two brain networks that could play a role.  First, the study advises that frontal brain areas—the medial and lateral ventral prefrontal cortex—regulate emotion, and alterations in this network could lead to an excess of negative thoughts.  Secondly, the dorsal prefrontal cortex and inferior frontal gyrus system contribute to decision-making and behavior control. Alterations here could also increase suicide risk.