SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah researchers say they’ve discovered differences in the way brains of young adults and teens who have experienced depression and suicidal behavior work.
The findings could bring hope to those struggling and might eventually lead to new treatments, researchers say.
“There are lots of worried family members, or family members who have already gone through the heartache of losing someone. And there are lots of patients who might have lost hope that there might be good treatments for them,” said Scott Langenecker, professor of psychiatry at U. Health and senior author on the study published last week in Psychological Medicine.
“Every step we take toward defining some of the biological risk factors for depression and for suicide means we’re one step closer to identifying ways to modify those risk factors.”
That’s why he’s hopeful after his team’s research, along with researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago, identified differences between connectivity in the brains of those who had a history of depression and suicidal behavior, compared to those who didn’t.
“This research was begun with the idea that we were looking for biological, brain-based measures to distinguish between individuals who might be at risk for depression, compared to individuals who have no risk for depression,” he said.
More than 200 late adolescents and young adults participated. The symptoms of those who had a history of depression were at a minimum at the time of the study, Langenecker said.
From resting-state MRIs, the researchers found that those with a history of depression had differences in their brain networks. The cognitive control network — which engages “when we want to regulate emotion, or engage in problem solving, or to refrain from engaging in an impulsive thought or action” — was disrupted in those with depression. Those with a history of suicidal behavior had even more disrupted connections in their cognitive control network, Langenecker said.
He said the disrupted network might be part of the risk for suicide.
The findings weren’t what researchers expected.
“It was surprising to find that some of these measures were stable, meaning that they were there the first time we measured them, and then they were there again when we made the same measurements four months later,” he said, adding that the measurements weren’t taken long after they’d been at acute risk for suicide.
Risk for suicide, however, is complicated and not just based on the brain, but on social networks, environment, treatments and trigger events. “We’re only asking one part of the question here,” Langenecker said.
Now, the question remains whether the differences in network connectivity were there before the suicidal behavior and depression, or arose after.
“Right now, we are moving forward with the hope that it is something there that was there beforehand for two reasons,” Langenecker explained.
If the issue existed before, he said, it could help doctors evaluate the levels of risk for teenagers who come into emergency rooms with distress, and add to other information and observations.
If the connectivity issue exists before the suicidal behavior, it could also potentially be modified before someone goes into a suicidal crisis, and help them avoid the crisis altogether, Langenecker said.
Now, the researchers are looking at suicide risk for women during pregnancy who have a history of trauma or depression. They are also working to replicate the results of the current study among new participants.
Langenecker hopes the research will encourage people to “really sort of take a longer look at how our health care system is designed, and devising ways to make access to and continuity of care easier for people who have brain illnesses in which suicide might be a risk factor.”
The Utah Department of Health offers suicide prevention help at utahsuicideprevention.org/suicide-prevention-basics. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. Help is also available through the SafeUT app.