The psychology and neurobiology of suicidal behavior

Annu Rev Psychol. 2005;56:287-314. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.56.091103.070320.


Suicide is a leading cause of death, but it is not well understood or well researched. Our purpose in this review is to summarize extant knowledge on neurobiological and psychological factors involved in suicide, with specific goals of identifying areas particularly in need of future research and of articulating an initial agenda that may guide future research. We conclude that from both neurobiological and psychological perspectives, extant research findings converge on the view that two general categories of risk for suicide can be identified: (a) dysregulated impulse control; and (b) propensity to intense psychological pain (e.g., social isolation, hopelessness), often in the context of mental disorders, especially mood disorders. Each of these categories of risk is underlain at least to some degree by specific genetic and neurobiological factors; these factors in general are not well characterized, though there is emerging consensus that most if not all reside in or affect the serotonergic system. We encourage future theorizing that is conceptually precise, as well as epistemically broad, about the specific preconditions of serious suicidal behavior, explaining the daunting array of suicide-related facts from the molecular to the cultural level.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Affect
  • Aggression / psychology
  • Brain / blood supply
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Culture
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Mental Disorders / metabolism
  • Mental Disorders / physiopathology
  • Risk Factors
  • Self-Injurious Behavior / epidemiology
  • Self-Injurious Behavior / psychology
  • Serotonin / metabolism
  • Social Isolation
  • Suicide, Attempted / psychology*
  • Suicide, Attempted / statistics & numerical data


  • Serotonin