Brain research: Suicide network discovered in the brain

Brain research: Suicide network discovered in the brain

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Brain networks identified for suicidal thoughts

An international research team has identified two key networks in the brain that appear to play a major role in suicidal thoughts. Research is laying the foundation for new, improved and much-needed ways to reduce the risk of suicide.

A recent international study involving Cambridge University reveals previously unknown mechanisms in the brain associated with suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. The research results were recently presented in the journal "Molecular Psychiatry".

Suicide is a common cause of death among adolescents

According to the study, around 800,000 people die of suicide every year. One person kills himself every 40 seconds. Among the 15-29 year olds, suicide is one of the most common causes of death. Suicide kills more adolescents than cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, flu and chronic lung diseases combined.

Too little is being done about suicide?

The researchers warn that around one in three young people is thinking about ending their lives. Among those who have thoughts of suicide, around one in three people attempt suicide. When the research team compiled the current state of study on suicide, the scientists discovered how little is known about the background and the most vulnerable groups.

"We hardly know anything about suicide!"

"Imagine you have an illness that kills almost a million people a year, and yet nobody knows why some individuals are more susceptible than others," reports Dr. Anne-Laura van Harmelen, one of the authors of the study. So far, very little is known about what happens in the brain of people thinking about suicide. Likewise, it is not known why there are gender differences and why young people are particularly vulnerable.

The suicide network

To advance research in this area, researchers sought evidence of structural, functional, and molecular changes in the brain when there is an increased risk of suicide. The team found what they were looking for and identified two brain networks and a connection between the networks that appear to play an important role in suicide.

Brain changes in people with suicidal thoughts

The team re-analyzed the research results from 131 studies from the past two decades. In total, the researchers collected data from more than 12,000 people. The scientists discovered that people who have suicidal thoughts have changes in the brain.

Brain region indicates excessive emotions

According to the study, the first of the networks discovered covers the front of the brain. This area is especially known for establishing connections to other brain networks that are involved in emotions. Changes in this area of ​​the brain could indicate excessive emotions as well as difficulties in regulating emotions.

When thoughts step into action

The second network includes the brain region, which is called the prefrontal cortex. This area is involved in decision-making as well as in generating alternative solutions to problems and controlling behavior. Changes in this network could affect whether or not suicidal thoughts become real suicide attempts.

A pill against suicide?

The researchers believe it is possible that both networks could be modified in terms of their structure, function or biochemistry in order to influence how an individual thinks about the future. "The review provides evidence of a very hopeful future in which we will find new and improved ways to reduce the risk of suicide," summarizes research director Professor Hilary Blumberg.

More education needed

The study results also show that current research into suicide is inadequate. So far, one knows too little about gender differences and particularly vulnerable groups. The majority of the studies also dealt with the suicide of adults, although it is known that thoughts of suicide often arise during adolescence.

Improve prevention

"The biggest predictor of suicide death is a previous failed attempt to commit suicide," said co-author Dr. Lianne Schmaal from the University of Melbourne. It is therefore important that we can intervene earlier to reduce the risk of suicide. "If we can find a way to identify the most vulnerable young people, we have the chance to step in and help them in this important phase of their lives," says the researcher. (vb)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Graduate editor (FH) Volker Blasek


  • University of Cambridge: Study identifies brain networks that play crucial role in suicide risk (access: 02.12.20199,
  • Schmaal, L, van Harmelen, A.-L. et al. Imaging suicidal thoughts and behaviors: a comprehensive review of 2 decades of neuroimaging studies. Molecular psychiatry; 2 Dec 2019; DOI: 10.1038 / s41380-019-0587-x,

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