Updated 12 December 2014

Brain abnormalities tied to teen suicide risk

Researchers found that white matter abnormalities in the brain's frontal systems may be associated with suicide risk in teens and young adults.


Teens and young adults who attempted suicide were found to have abnormalities in the frontal areas of their brains, a new study says.

Prefrontal cortex

Researchers conducted brain scans on 68 participants, aged 14 to 25, with bipolar disorder, a mental illness that causes extreme emotional highs and lows. Of those patients, 26 had attempted suicide. Brain scans were also done on a control group of 45 teens and young adults without bipolar disorder.

Compared to bipolar patients who had not attempted suicide and those in the control group, the participants who attempted suicide had abnormalities in the prefrontal cortex and related areas of the brain.

Read: Combating suicide

Specifically, those who tried suicide had less "integrity" of white matter in key frontal brain systems, including one that connects the frontal lobe with areas that control emotion, motivation and memory, the researchers said.

These white matter abnormalities may disrupt the ability of these areas to work together, according to researcher Hilary Blumberg and colleagues at the Yale School of Medicine.

Mood disorders

The researchers also found a link between white matter deficits in these structural connections and the number of suicide attempts and the seriousness of those attempts.

The findings suggest that white matter abnormalities in the brain's frontal systems may be associated with suicide risk in teens and young adults with mood disorders such as bipolar disorder and depression, the researchers concluded.

Read: Bipolar disorder

Roughly 4 percent of Americans have bipolar disorder. Of those with the disorder, 25 percent to 50 percent attempt suicide, and 15 percent to 20 percent die of suicide.

The new study was to be presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, in Phoenix.

Research presented at medical meetings is considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Read more:

Brain stimulation lifts depression
Stress and depression can shrink the brain
Brain study predicts depression in kids

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Michael Simpson has been a senior psychiatric academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries, having worked at London University in the UK; McMaster University in Canada; Temple University in Philadelphia, USA.; and the University of Natal in South Africa.

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