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Brain image can predict suicide risk: Scientists

Scientists have developed a new technique which they claim can map and analyse the brain activity of people, who are under antidepressant treatment, to predict whether they are susceptible to develop suicidal thoughts.

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, (UCLA) have come out with the new approach, called quantitative EEG (QEEG), which they believe might help doctors foresee suicidal thoughts before a patient even has them.

The technique involves a skull cap that contains electrodes and is worn over the head to monitor patients on antidepressant drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

Lead researcher Aimee Hunter and her team also wrote a computer programme that reads the electrical activity and then translates them into a map of the brain to show researchers where the activity is coming from, the Technology Review magazine reported.

For their study, the researchers looked at 72 participants, 37 of whom were on SSRIs while the rest on placebos, a sham or simulated medical intervention.

The participants came into the lab at various times after starting their drug therapy -- after the first 48 hours, then at one week, two weeks, four weeks and eight weeks. During their visits, the patients wore the electrode cap and then filled out a mood-assessment questionnaire.

During the study, five of the 37 people on SSRIs experienced thoughts of suicide and the picture of their brain activity created from the electrode cap showed a drop of neural activity in the part of the brain known to control emotions.

The drop happened within the first 48 hours after starting the medication. After one week, the brain activity came back up and appeared similar to other patients who were not having thoughts of suicide.

"It was very strange: There was a very large downward spike, and then ... Nothing," Hunter said.

"But the suicidal worsening isn't happening at 48 hours--it's happening at some later point over the next eight weeks."

This is the first time scientists have been able to show a link between being on medication and thoughts of suicide and the research is believed to be a harbinger of future response.

The results may also prove helpful in determining underlying physiology, says Ira Lesser, a professor of psychiatry at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center who was not involved in the current work.

"It begins to let people think neurochemically about what might be involved in the genesis of suicidal thinking. Heuristically, it could lead to whole other areas of study.


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