Suicide Prevention: It’s All in the Brain

Suicide Prevention

When a loved one attempts suicide or dies by suicide, it may make you desperate to find the reason why. But suicide is incredibly complex, and there are no simple answers.

Consider Jesse, who was just 14 when she was admitted to the hospital after a suicide attempt. On the surface, it seemed that she had tried to take her own life because she had a terrible fight with her mother that night. Jesse had been doing poorly in school and couldn’t keep up academically with her friends, and her mother had berated her for it. But the real story went much deeper.

Jesse had a family history of depression on her father’s side, and her mother had many ADD/ADHD symptoms (although she refused to be evaluated and treated for it). Jesse felt sad and had a tendency to look at the negative side of things. She was also disorganized, had lifelong trouble focusing on her schoolwork, and was impulsive. She was diagnosed with depression and ADD/ADHD.

A brain imaging study showed that Jesse had increased activity in the brain’s limbic system (an area involved in setting a person’s emotional tone) as well as decreased activity in her prefrontal cortex (an area involved in impulse control and judgment). This brain pattern made her more vulnerable to suicide.

Suicide in the Brain

Brain SPECT imaging studies reveal underlying brain abnormalities in people who have suicidal thoughts or attempts. Amen Clinics has performed brain scans on more than 300 people who have made a suicide attempt and on far more who have considered taking their own life. Most of these individuals possessed some combination of the following traits—impulsiveness, negative thinking patterns, flashes of irritability or anger, and a lack of good judgment. For Jesse, it was the swirling negative thoughts, impulsivity, and poor judgment combined with life stressors that put her at increased risk.

Imaging studies reveal that people with suicidal thoughts and behavior often have the following brain abnormalities:

Head Injuries

Concussions and traumatic brain injuries (TBIs)—even mild ones that don’t cause you to blackout—increase the risk of suicide. Falling off a bike, getting in a car accident, or falling off a ladder can cause dramatic changes in brain function that increase anxiety, depression, impulsivity, anger, poor decision-making, and substance abuse—all of which make a person more likely to contemplate suicide. At Amen Clinics, 40% of patients have experienced head trauma, but many of them don’t remember it.

Temporal Lobes

Brain SPECT imaging studies show that abnormalities in the temporal lobes—and especially in the left temporal lobe—are common in people with suicidal thoughts and behavior. In a study performed at Amen Clinics, left temporal lobe problems were present in 62% of people who seriously thought about taking their own life or who made a suicide attempt.

Prefrontal Cortex (PFC)

Low blood flow in the PFC, which is associated with impaired decision-making, impulse control, and judgment, is commonly seen in suicidal people. Anything that lowers PFC activity can increase the risk of suicide in those who are already vulnerable. For example, alcohol lowers activity in the PFC, and a study in BMJ found that22% of suicide victims were drunk at the time of their death.

Anterior Cingulate Gyrus (ACG)

The ACG is the brain’s gear shifter and helps you go from thought to thought. When there is too much activity in this area, however, people have a tendency to get stuck on negative thoughts, which is one of the traits seen in people with suicidal thoughts and behavior.

Healing the Brain, Saving Lives

To help prevent suicide, it’s critical to healing underlying brain dysfunction. For Jesse, that included medication for her impulsivity and poor judgment, and psychotherapy to help her learn to change her negative thinking patterns. Over several months, her condition improved significantly. Her mood was better. School was easier for her. She had better frustration tolerance and impulse control. Her initial weekly visits after she left the hospital turned into every 2 weeks and then monthly by the end of the first year, and she maintained good stability.

Healing her brain helped save her life. The best way to prevent suicide or help someone after a suicide attempt is to help them heal their brain.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

At Amen Clinics, we have treated hundreds of people who have attempted suicide, including Jesse. We use brain SPECT imaging to help identify underlying brain abnormalities that increase the risk of suicide and offer personalized treatment plans to optimize the brain and lead to a happier, healthier outlook on life.

If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal tendencies and would like more information on how to heal your brain and save a life, call us at 888-288-9834 or schedule a visit online.



  1. My daughter was suffering from tingling and tremors in her arms. Pain down right side of her body, neck, arm and leg. She also suffers sore heads and dizzy spells. Ringing in her ears, poor focus. When she passed out a few times they done a mri of brain. This showed that Katie has chiari malformation type 1. Katie also has cmn birthmark. Main one covering half of her head. My concern about Katie is her sometimes low mood and angry outbursts. She was a beautiful kind child until she turned eleven. Which is when these other symptoms mentioned above started. Do you think these symptoms are from her chiari malformation. The neurosurgeon she seen does not seem to think the symptoms are related. He says she does not need surgery as long as she is walking and talking.

    Comment by Eileen mills — November 8, 2019 @ 3:55 PM

  2. While growing up in a family with five sisters and no brothers I was constantly berated by my mother. Her most common were “You’ll never amount ti anything.” and “Your Daddy never wanted any boys” and finally, but not the least “You’re more trouble than all the girls put together.”

    I never realized until I was recently made aware of “Complex PTSD” just how much damage she had done. For example, with an IQ of 140. I barely passed elementary and high school. But I did go on to get a college degree (definitely not cum sum laude or whatever. Why I do not know but I also received certification as a Management Accountant,

    Now days, my only son has disowned me because “I am grumpy,” and his wife did a hugely negative thing, well planned out, that resulted in my son telling me (A patient of Parkinson’s Disease) “Dad, you are on your own.” My oldest grandson has not spoken to me in awhlile, even to tell me of the birth of my first great grand child, whom I still have not met. My youngest grandson and my granddaughter,19 and 20 years old respectfully live with my son and this woman. It has been a couple of years since my youngest grandson spoke to me and about one year for my granddaughter who sent my an email then.

    Currently of the four remaining sisters, two are remotely helping as they can on my Parkinson’s I have not seen any family member for a few years now, I live in the Louisville, KY area with no transportation so the only times I get out are to go to the VA Hospital for an appointnent. I live in a non-VA Group Home. IMHO, most of the residents should be getting care for their various physical and mental issues in a nursing facility, but get none.

    A few days ago, I fell and came down hard in a sitting position. My back still hurts like hell whenever I try to do anything but maintain position. A couple of days ago, I emailed my VA PCP and informed her of most of my issues, but no response yet. I am willing to spend some time in a VA mental hospital, such as south of Nashville, where there are no yelling women as there are where I reside now, if they believe that they can relieve some of the resulting issues such as anxiety and long term clinical depression. And maybe, low self esteem as well as personality disorders such as no crowds, preferring to always be alone as I know that if I befriend anyone, eventually I will get hurt,


    Comment by John Harig — December 16, 2019 @ 6:39 AM

  3. Hello John, thank you for reaching out. We’d be happy to contact you directly to discuss further. Our Care Coordinators can provide information on insurance, reimbursement and financing options. We look forward to speaking with you.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — December 16, 2019 @ 4:19 PM

  4. Dr Amens “Seratonin mood support” has been a godsend. It is mostly B12. It won’t hurt to try.

    Comment by Bonnie P Kidd — December 20, 2019 @ 6:38 AM

  5. This research is amazing but it is only for the wealthy. For the millions of suicidal veterans out there this is not an option. Many are unemployable and loving on the streets. I would love to see if some of this research can help them

    Comment by Dawn — December 21, 2019 @ 6:37 AM

  6. I am sorry about all the problems your daughter is suffering. My grandson has chiari malformation. His major symptom was sleep apnea,
    He had an operation Nov. 2016 where the lower back of his skull was opened and the tonsils of the brain (their term) were cut. Then everything was closed up. He recovered very well. He really needed more room inside his skull. I did a lot of reading and many people are not diagnosed until adulthood and it can cause many symptoms including motor functions. You might seek a second opinion.

    Comment by Darol — December 21, 2019 @ 11:11 AM

  7. I would like to get a SPECT scan, why do you not bill my insurance for it? Can I get one from somewhere that does then come to you for treatment?

    Comment by Terry — December 21, 2019 @ 11:11 AM

  8. My dad is 100 percent covered by VA. He is PTSD and very depressed from the life changes rt a fall breaking his hip and elbow. He is 93. He just recently admitted he hit his head In the fall and it has changed his ability to think clearly. Up unto his fall people when first meeting him would assume he was in his early seventies. Now he looks, acts, and walks like an old man. Do you know if the VA will pay for your services? He needs the real help he never received and deserves.

    Comment by Bishop — December 21, 2019 @ 6:22 PM

  9. When I turned 11 I started having symptoms similar to your daughter, I suffered from anger outbursts, low moods, and low energy and many more symptoms. Not until my main symptom appeared “seizures” is when my parents found out that I had a Cavernous malformation. Shorty after finding out I ended up having brain surgery. After the surgery I still had symptoms I was lethargic and had very poor concentration and low moods. Thankfully my amazing mom and my dad did so many amazing things to help me. One of them was a food sensitivity test, after I took the test and avoided the foods i was specifically sensitive to my moods improved amazingly! My parents also took me to amen clinics and they introduced me to vitamins that helped me so much as well! I don’t know if you’re daughters symptoms are because of the malformation or a different cause but I think either way taking vitamins and learning what affects your daughters moods might help her! I’ve had amazing results from talking the vitamins and doing many other things to improve my moods and well being!

    Comment by Ana Paulina — December 22, 2019 @ 10:17 PM

  10. It makes me sad to see all of these people suffering and unable to get help because of monetary factors and zip code. Those of use with suicidal thoughts, negativity pouring through our brain, and the only light we see at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train, will never find peace. The only thing that keeps me going is that I couldn’t do that to my kids.

    Comment by JJ — December 24, 2019 @ 7:00 AM

  11. I would go to a functional doctor who understands lymes disease and mold…it sounds like she could be affected by one or both. My husband has been badly affected by toxic mold. We also found out through special labs that a functional doctor did that he has a gene that makes it harder for his body to get rid of it.

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