A new study finds that one-quarter of suicide attempts are associated with a dysfunction in how the brain interprets basic perceptual information, such as what we see, hear and think.

According to researchers at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, this dysfunction can predict suicidal behavior, and offers new prospects for treatment and suicide prevention.

Symptoms such as depressed mood, feelings of worthlessness, and a sense of hopelessness are well documented in suicidal behavior. However, in an analysis of more than 80,000 people, new research has revealed that one quarter of individuals who attempted or died by suicide had problems in basic sensory experiences, such as hearing or seeing things that aren’t really there — otherwise known as “perceptual abnormalities.”

These episodes are not necessarily associated with psychotic illnesses or depression and can occur in people who do not experience mental illness, according to the study.

Research over the past 15 years has shown that experiences such as “hearing voices” are far more common than previously thought, with about 5 to 7 percent of the general population reporting at least occasionally having experiences such as hearing voices. For some people, these experiences emerge when the brain is under stress or when coping levels are exceeded, according to the researchers.

“Our research shows that if we can understand and treat the factors associated with these perceptual abnormalities, we could prevent at least a quarter of suicide attempts and deaths,” said Dr. Ian Kelleher, a RCSI Psychiatry Research Lecturer and study lead. “Given that about 1 million people die by suicide every year, that’s a very encouraging prospect for suicide prevention.”

“These findings show the need both for clinicians to pay particular attention to patients reporting experience of psychotic experience, and for greater funding for research into recognizing a psychosis subtype of suicide,” he continued.

“If we are to understand suicide, we need to understand a lot more about perceptual abnormalities,” added doctoral student and co-author Kathryn Yates of RCSI Psychiatry.

“What causes people to hear voices? How do these experiences relate to the biological and social factors involved in suicide risk? There are still a lot of unanswered questions, but this research points to new avenues to improve prediction of suicidal behavior.”

The study was published in JAMA Psychiatry.

Source: Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland