Mind & Body

Researchers Have Identified 6 Words That Will Help Save Lives

Suicide is not an easy subject to broach. In fact, we're struggling to introduce it right now. But this article isn't meant to be dark or somber; it's actually the opposite. A 2017 study may offer some hope for individuals teetering on the decision to end their lives. Help may be on the way in the form of a mental health practitioner, an fMRI, and six simple words.

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Help Me Help You

It's standard practice for a doctor to ask a patient if they've had or are having thoughts of suicide, but according to a 2003 study, we don't have a great way to intervene unless the patient outright answers "yes." 80 percent of patients who committed suicide denied having suicidal thoughts in their last contact with a mental health professional. The first way to help these individuals is to improve our ability to assess risk.

A 2017 study published in Nature Human Behaviour offers what could be a life-saving solution to the verbal denial of suicidal ideation in patients. Technology to the rescue! The researchers put volunteers in an fMRI brain scan and asked them to consider each of 30 positive, negative, and neutral words, one after the other, while their brain activity was analyzed. With this method, the researchers were able to identify suicidal individuals with 91 percent accuracy by using their brains' responses to six words: death, cruelty, trouble, carefree, good, and praise.

In the study, there were 17 control subjects and 17 participants who admitted to having suicidal thoughts. For the volunteers who had thought about suicide, words like death and cruelty activated the left superior medial frontal area and the medial frontal/anterior cingulate: areas associated with self-referential thought. Using a machine-learning algorithm, the researchers correctly identified 15 of the 17 brains of those with suicidal ideation and 16 of the 17 controls.

Get Out of My Head!

This research offers promise and hope, but it's not perfect. Using huge, heavy, expensive equipment like fMRIs isn't exactly discreet or practical, for one. "It would be nice to see if we could possibly do this using EEG, if we could assess the thought alterations with EEG," said Dr. Marcel Just, the lead author of the study. "It would be enormously cheaper. More widely used."

The mind-reading of the fMRI is far from perfect, too. "If somebody didn't want others to know what they are thinking, they can certainly block that method. They can not cooperate," said Just. "I don't think we have a way to get at people's thoughts against their will." fMRI itself even has its critics. That being said, understanding that there are differences in the brains of suicidal individuals and controls is a big step in the direction of saving more lives.

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For a science-backed look at depression, check out "The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time" by Alex Korb, Ph.D. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto December 7, 2017

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