How a Brain Functions in Someone Who is Suicidal

An Australian Rotary Health (ARH) funded study has found clear differences in the way a brain functions in a person experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Professor Gin Malhi and his team at the University of Sydney were awarded an ARH Mental Health Research Grant from 2017-2019 to conduct MRI scans on suicidal patients at the Royal North Shore Hospital, to better understand what might be happening in their brains.

A key result from the study has helped to show how different brain networks function during times of suicidal thinking.

Professor Malhi says that certain brain regions that are involved in self-reflection and responding to other people are impacted in patients with higher levels of suicidal thinking.

“We have found that an abnormal emotional response, like irritability or withdrawing from others, is one of many contributing factors which may help to maintain suicidal thinking,” Professor Malhi said.

“This makes sense because we often see this in patients during these times. Targeting and studying contributing factors in the future may provide some further answers to try and shift these trains of thought.”

Another interesting finding was that there were also clear differences in brain function between patients who were experiencing thoughts of suicide and those who were not.

Dr Pritha Das, a Neuroimaging Scientist on the research team said these findings have both clinical and scientific value.

“Our research has shown that those who have attempted suicide, even once at some point, have altered their brain from those who have never attempted,” Dr Das said.

Now that these findings have helped to understand how suicide occurs, Professor Malhi and his team are looking at how certain medications may help patients specifically recover from suicidal thinking.

“Our future research aims involve pairing our brain scanning findings with treatment study findings when medications and psychological therapies are used. This will help us understand how treatments might target suicidal thinking specifically,” Professor Malhi said.

“This means in future we can better prevent suicide using better and more targeted treatments both psychological and pharmacological.”


Professor Malhi has had 10 journal articles published as a result of this research:

  1. Make lithium great again!
  2. Lithium therapy and its interactions
  3. Lithium should be borne in mind: Five reasons.
  4. Attempting suicide changes the brain?
  5. Default mode dysfunction underpins suicidal activity in mood disorders
  6. Cognitive and emotional impairments underpinning suicidal activity in patients with mood disorders: an fMRI study
  7. Relating irritability and suicidal ideation using mood and anxiety
  8. Understanding suicide: Focusing on its mechanisms through a lithium lens
  9. Modeling suicide in bipolar disorders
  10. Lithium: The silver lining to clouded thinking? 


Professor Malhi will join us on a future episode of our podcast called ‘The Research Behind Lift the Lid’, so stay tuned!

Please consider donating to more important mental health research like Professor Malhi’s on our website today to help #Liftthelidonmentalillness


Media contact: Jessica Cooper – jessica@arh,

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please contact Lifeline: 13 11 14.


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