Immunological aspects in the neurobiology of suicide: elevated microglial density in schizophrenia and depression is associated with suicide

J Psychiatr Res. 2008 Jan;42(2):151-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2006.10.013. Epub 2006 Dec 15.


Objectives: Suicide has a high prevalence in patients with schizophrenia and affective disorder. Our recent postmortem study [Steiner J, Mawrin C, Ziegeler A, Bielau H, Ullrich O, Bernstein HG, Bogerts B. Distribution of HLA-DR-positive microglia in schizophrenia reflects impaired cerebral lateralization. Acta Neuropathologica (Berl) 2006;112:305-16.] revealed increased microglial densities in two schizophrenic patients who had committed suicide. Therefore, the hypothesis of microglial activation during acute psychosis was proposed. Alternatively, "suicide" could be a diagnosis-independent factor leading to microgliosis.

Methods: To clarify this question, microglial HLA-DR expression was analyzed by immunohistochemistry in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), mediodorsal thalamus (MD) and hippocampus of 16 schizophrenics, 14 depressed patients with affective disorder and 10 matched controls. A subgroup of six schizophrenics and seven patients with affective disorder who committed suicide was included.

Results: ANOVA revealed no effect of diagnosis on microglial density (DLPFC: P=0.469; ACC: P=0.349; MD: P=0.569; hippocampus: P=0.497). However, significant microgliosis was observed in the DLPFC (P=0.004), ACC (P=0.012) and MD (P=0.004) of suicide patients. A similar trend was seen in the hippocampus (P=0.057).

Conclusion: In conclusion, immunological factors may play a hitherto underestimated role in suicide. First, microglial activation might be interpreted as a consequence of presuicidal stress. Second, one might speculate a causal link between microglial activation and suicidal behaviour, such as neuroendocrine factors, cytokines, and nitric oxide, which are released from microglial cells and are known to modulate noradrenergic or serotonergic neurotransmission and thus may trigger suicidality.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Bipolar Disorder / immunology*
  • Bipolar Disorder / pathology
  • Brain / immunology*
  • Brain / pathology
  • Cell Count
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / immunology*
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / pathology
  • Female
  • Gliosis / immunology
  • Gliosis / pathology
  • Gyrus Cinguli / immunology
  • Gyrus Cinguli / pathology
  • HLA-DR Antigens / analysis*
  • Hippocampus / immunology
  • Hippocampus / pathology
  • Humans
  • Immunoenzyme Techniques
  • Male
  • Mediodorsal Thalamic Nucleus / immunology
  • Mediodorsal Thalamic Nucleus / pathology
  • Microglia / immunology*
  • Microglia / pathology
  • Middle Aged
  • Prefrontal Cortex / immunology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / pathology
  • Reference Values
  • Schizophrenia / immunology*
  • Schizophrenia / pathology
  • Suicide / psychology*


  • HLA-DR Antigens