Brain Scans May Identify Teens With Bipolar Disorder at High Risk for Suicide

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Researchers say they have discovered a way to identify teenagers and young adults with bipolar disorder who are at the highest risk for attempting suicide.

According to the authors of the study, approximately half of all people who live with bipolar disorder attempt suicide at some point in their life. Up to one in five people with the disorder characterized by extreme mood swings die from suicide.

“Suicide is a leading cause of death of adolescents and young adults, and we can’t move on this issue fast enough,” said Hilary Blumberg, the John and Hope Furth Professor of Psychiatric Neuroscience, professor in psychiatry, radiology, and biomedical imaging and in the Yale Child Study Center, and senior author of the study. “The identification of brain circuits involved in risk for suicide can lead to new ways to identify who is most at risk and hopefully, prevent suicides.”

In the study published today in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Blumberg and colleagues recruited teens and young adults with bipolar disorder to undergo brain scans using specialized magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). They then compared the scans of those who had not attempted suicide against those who had.

When comparing the scans, the team noticed that those who had attempted suicide showed slightly less volume and activity in regions of the brain associated with impulses and emotional regulation as well as in the white matter surrounding those areas.

“The findings suggest that the frontal cortex is not working as well as it should to regulate the circuitry,” said Blumberg. “That can lead to more extreme emotional pain, difficulties in generating alternate solutions to suicide and greater likelihood of acting on suicidal impulses.”

The researchers believe more research into the association between brain circuitry and suicide risk may help identify individuals at high risk and enable early intervention efforts.

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