Neuroimaging study uncovers brain abnormalities linked to suicide attempts

Neuroscience research published in The American Journal of Psychiatry has found some brain abnormalities that are associated with suicide attempts in those with bipolar disorder.

“Suicide is a major cause of death in adolescents and young adults. We studied adolescents and young adults with bipolar disorder as their risk for suicide is especially high,” explained study author Hilary Blumberg, a medical doctor and the inaugural John and Hope Furth Professor of Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine.

(If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or follow this link to their online chat.)

The study used magnetic resonance imaging and diffusion tensor imaging to compare the brain structures of 26 participants with bipolar disorder who had a prior suicide attempt to 42 participants with bipolar disorder without a suicide attempt.

The researchers found differences between the two groups in the frontolimbic neural system.

The researchers found suicide attempters had reduced gray matter volumes in certain areas of the brain, particularly the right orbitofrontal cortex and hippocampus, and bilateral cerebellum. Suicide attempters also had diminished integrity of white matter in the uncinate fasciculus, ventral frontal, and right cerebellum regions and decreased functional connectivity between the amygdala and left ventral prefrontal and right rostral prefrontal regions.

The findings suggest that brain regions associated with the processing and regulating of emotional information were impaired among the participants who had attempted suicide.

“The study is important as it identified differences in brain circuitry in adolescents and young adults with bipolar disorder who made attempts,” Blumberg told PsyPost. “This new information is key to understanding the brain differences that underlie suicide attempts, and our next step in the research is to develop new strategies to identify individuals at high risk to prevent suicide.”

The research helps identify brain abnormalities associated with suicide attempts, but future studies would benefit from larger sample sizes and longitudinal methodologies.

“The causes of suicide are complex,” Blumberg remarked. “Studies like this provide important pieces of the puzzle and the pieces of the puzzle are starting to come together. Researchers in the field have great momentum but there is still a lot of work to be done. I am very hopeful we will soon have new ways to prevent suicide.”

The study, “Multimodal Neuroimaging of Frontolimbic Structure and Function Associated With Suicide Attempts in Adolescents and Young Adults With Bipolar Disorder“, was also co-authored by Jennifer A.Y. Johnston, Fei Wang,Jie Liu, Benjamin N. Blond, Amanda Wallace, Jiacheng Liu, Linda Spencer, Elizabeth T. Cox Lippard, Kirstin L. Purves, Angeli Landeros-Weisenberger, Eric Hermes, Brian Pittman, Sheng Zhang, Robert King, Andrés Martin, and Maria A. Oquendo.