Suicidal people appear to have specific brain activity that can now be monitored by a computer, scientists say.
In people who are thinking of killing themselves, words such as “death” and “trouble” create a distinctive “neural signature” that is unlike any others, NPR reports. More than 44,000 people commit suicide in the United States every year.
Marcel Just, author on the study and the D. O. Hebb professor of cognitive neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon University, said,
There really is a difference in the way [suicidal] people think about certain concepts.
This manner of thinking and difference allowed a computer program to tell which people thought about suicide, compared to people who did not, over 90% of the time. It likewise let the same program distinguish which people had already attempted to kill themselves from those who were just thinking about it.
The scientists studied 34 young adults using functional MRI. They chose a list of words they thought might bring out brain patterns related to suicide. Just said, “Some are kind of obvious suicide-related words like ‘apathy’, ‘death,’ ‘desperate,’ ‘fatal,’ ‘funeral,’ ‘hopeless,’ ‘lifeless.’” Other words were more positive, such as “carefree,” “praise,” and “good.”
The participants lay in a brain scanner and watched a computer screen. “The words come up on the screen one at a time, they think about them for three seconds each, and we capture the brain activity while they’re thinking about what each of these concepts means,” Just explained. The data was then input into a computer program that looked for patterns.
A larger study is necessary to follow up on the results, said Barry Horowitz, chief of brain imaging and modeling at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. “Just looking at behavior is probably inadequate for a lot of purposes. It’s much better to be able to see what the brain is doing,” he said.
Lisa Pan, co-author on the study and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said, “We’re very bad at identifying which people who are presenting with risk are in fact going to go on and have a suicide attempt.”
Brain scans might soon help mental health professionals prevent more suicides, the researchers say.
The study was published in Nature Human Behavior.