A New Approach to Suicide Risk Assessment
Suicide prevention is a critical area in mental health care. Recognizing who might be at risk is key to saving lives. But, it’s a tricky problem.
Over the past fifty years, we’ve only made small steps forward in figuring out who is most likely to attempt suicide.
But now, we’ve discovered a new approach. It involves studying the brain to find clues or “markers” that might tell us who’s at risk.
Scientists from the Veterans Affairs (VA) and Boston University (BU) have been exploring this new avenue.
They’ve discovered that the way certain parts of the brain communicate with each other could signal a higher risk of suicide.
Brain Connectivity and Suicide Risk
In particular, the researchers focused on how two areas of the brain interact. One area is involved in cognitive control – that’s the part of our brain that helps us make decisions and control our actions.
The other area is involved in self-referential thought processing – this is the part of the brain where we reflect on ourselves and our experiences.
The scientists found that among veterans who had attempted suicide, the communication between these two areas of the brain was different.
This was the case even before they had made any suicide attempts.
The researchers compared these findings with veterans who had similar mental health issues but had never attempted suicide. The difference in brain connectivity stood out.
The Study and Its Findings
Audreyana Jagger-Rickels, Ph.D., led this groundbreaking study.
She’s a top researcher at the National Center for PTSD at the VA Boston Healthcare System and also teaches psychiatry at Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine.
She believes this discovery could revolutionize how we identify those at risk of suicide and how we treat them.
The research involved veterans who had served after 9/11. They were part of a long-term study at the VA Boston Translational Research Center for Traumatic Brain Injury and Stress Disorders (TRACTS).
This study looked at various aspects of health, including brain, cognitive, physical, and psychological health.
The veterans underwent a special type of MRI scan that measures how different parts of the brain communicate with each other.
From this group, the researchers identified veterans who had attempted suicide during a follow-up assessment but had not done so during their previous assessments.
A comparison group was also identified. This group had similar symptoms of depression and PTSD but had not attempted suicide.
This allowed the researchers to see if the brain connectivity they observed was specifically linked to suicide attempts and not just a result of PTSD or depression.
The researchers found that the communication between the cognitive control and self-referential thought processing areas of the brain was indeed different in the group that had attempted suicide.
Importantly, this difference was seen both before and after the suicide attempt, suggesting it could be a reliable indicator of suicide risk.
Moving Beyond Self-Reporting
One of the big challenges in suicide risk assessment is that it largely relies on people telling us how they’re feeling. But not everyone feels comfortable sharing their thoughts about suicide.
That’s why these findings are so important. They could help us find those who are at risk but might not tell us.
Another finding from the study was that the connectivity of the right amygdala – a part of the brain that’s important for fear and trauma – was different in the suicide attempt group but only after they had attempted suicide.
This suggests that a suicide attempt might cause changes in the brain that could increase future suicide risk.
These findings are a big step forward in suicide prevention. They open up new possibilities for identifying those at risk and for developing new treatments.
If you care about depression, please read studies about how dairy foods may influence depression risk, and B vitamins could help prevent depression and anxiety.
For more information about mental health, please see recent studies that ultra-processed foods may make you feel depressed, and extra-virgin olive oil could reduce depression symptoms.
The study was conducted by Audreyana Jagger-Rickels and published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.
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