Suicidal people were found to exhibit distinct brain activity patterns. Brain scans hold potential in preventing suicide, which claimed more than 41,000 lives in the United States in 2013.

Individuals who consider committing suicide appear to have distinctive brain activity that can be measured by a computer. The neural signature observed in this group of people when they encounter words such as “death” and “hopeless” may have potential use in preventing intentional deaths.

Distinct Brain Activity Patterns In Suicidal People

To find out the brain activity patterns linked with suicide, researchers showed suicide-related words, words related to contrary ideas, and words with positive concepts to 34 young adults and then captured their brain activity while they were thinking about the idea of the words being shown to them.

Fig. 1: Clusters of stable voxels of the suicidal ideator group and the control group.

Fig. 2

The data were then fed into a computer running a machine-learning program that can look for patterns that distinguish suicidal brains from the typical brains.

Computer Program Can Distinguish Individuals With Suicidal Thoughts

Study researcher Marcel Just, from Carnegie Mellon University, said that there is a difference in the way people with suicidal thoughts think about specific concepts. That difference made it possible for the computer program to distinguish these individuals more than 90 percent of the time. The computer program also used this distinct brain pattern to identify individuals who had attempted suicide from those who only thought about it.

“Our latest work is unique insofar as it identifies concept alterations that are associated with suicidal ideation and behavior, using machine-learning algorithms to assess the neural representation of specific concepts related to suicide,” Just said.

Brain Scans May Help Prevent Suicides In The Future

Although the findings of the study still need to be replicated, experts said that the results hint of a future in which computers and brain scans can help evaluate a person’s mental health. The results also suggest that mental health professionals may someday use brain scans to prevent suicides.

“This study establishes a biological, neurocognitive basis for altered concept representations in participants with suicidal ideation, which enables highly accurate group membership classification,” the researchers wrote in their study, which was published in the journal Nature Human Behavior on Monday, Oct. 30.

Suicide In The United States

In 2013, more than 41,000 people in the United States committed suicide. Figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also showed that nearly half a million people with self-inflicted injuries were treated in emergency departments in the same year.

Men are about four times at greater risk than women to die from suicide. Women, however, are more likely to express suicidal thoughts.


Reference: 

WISQARS Data (CDC, 2016); http://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/leadcaus10_us.html .
Glenn, C. R. & Nock, M. K. Improving the short-term prediction of suicidal behavior. Am. J. Prev. Med. 47, S176–S180 (2014).
Nock, M. K. et al. Measuring the suicidal mind: implicit cognition predicts suicidal behavior. Psychol. Sci. 21, 511–517 (2010).
Busch, K. A., Fawcett, J. & Jacobs, D. G. Clinical correlates of inpatient suicide. J. Clin. Psychiatry 64, 14–19 (2003).