Do Individuals who are Suicidal have Unusual Patterns of Brain Activity?

Individuals who are suicidal seem to have unusual patterns of brain activity.

The differences are not big enough to identify those who may try to kill themselves, however, the researchers hope it will provide them with more information about what may be happening in terms of brain mechanisms (Schmaal et al., 2019).

The finding comes from a review of 131 brain-scan studies, comprising more than 12,000 people. The study looked to see whether there are distinctive patterns of brain activity in those who had made suicide attempts or had been thinking about suicide.

Most of these studies compared individuals with a certain mental health condition, such as depression, who had a history of suicidal behaviour, with a similar group with that condition who had not become suicidal, or with individuals without mental health problems.

The researchers found that two brain networks appear to function differently:

  • The first of these involves areas at the front of the head known as the medial and lateral ventral prefrontal cortex and their connections to regions involved in emotion. This may lead to difficulties regulating emotions.
  • A second involves regions known as the dorsal prefrontal cortex and inferior frontal gyrus system, which play a role in decision making.

However, the differences in these networks may just reflect that individuals who are suicidal are in more distress, rather than indicating specific thoughts of suicide.


Wilson, C. (2019) Suicidal Behaviour Linked to Two Brain Networks. New Scientist. 07 December 2019, pp.16.

Schmaal, L>, van Harmelen, A-L., Chatzi, V., Lippard, E.T.C., Toenders, Y.J., Averill, L.A., Mazure, C.M. & Plumberg, H.P. (2019) Imaging suicidal thoughts and behaviors: a comprehensive review of 2 decades of neuroimaging studies. Molecular Psychiatry. 25, pp.408-427.

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