Are the brains of people who think about suicide or attempt to take their lives different? For years we have attributed the feelings of hopelessness and despair associated with suicide to a person’s psychological state. Dr. Georg Northoff, a psychiatrist and medical researcher at the Royal Ottawa Mental Healthy Centre and the University of Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research, has devoted himself to understanding hopelessness and to identify people who are at risk for suicide. Dr. Northoff’s work has led him to recognize that people with suicidal thinking and behavior cannot see themselves in the future. He asked simple questions: “Where would you be in year?” and “What might make you happy then or sad?”
The people in his study are stuck in time. They cannot see themselves in the longer term future and their immediate sense of the future is mired in negativity. Dr. Northoff’s research involves a radical theory which identifies a dysfunction in a key area of the brain associated with suicidal thinking. Nestled between the two hemispheres is a region Dr. Northoff has identified related to the default mode or resting state network that fires up when a person is lost in thought or doing nothing in particular. The evidence points to this area as involved in many mental health problems, such as depression when one part of the network is hyperactive. In healthy people the brain stops resting when stimulated, but in depressed people the stimuli has no effect. Dr. Northoff is expanding his research to explore the neurochemistry of hopelessness. He suspects that the balance between two neurochemicals, gaba and glutamate, may be the key to understanding hyperactivity in the network behind the forehead. This research may open up new solutions using medications and specific psychotherapy strategies to help people who are stuck in the time continuum.
For those of us who work withe people who are hopeless and suicidal in mental health or brain injury rehabilitation setting, this study offers us and the people we treat an important new understanding of the cause of hopelessness, apathy and suicide and an opportunity to move into the future.