Brain Correlates of Suicide Attempt in 18,925 Participants Across 18 International Cohorts

Biol Psychiatry. 2021 Aug 15;90(4):243-252. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2021.03.015. Epub 2021 Mar 21.


Background: Neuroimaging studies of suicidal behavior have so far been conducted in small samples, prone to biases and false-positive associations, yielding inconsistent results. The ENIGMA-MDD Working Group aims to address the issues of poor replicability and comparability by coordinating harmonized analyses across neuroimaging studies of major depressive disorder and related phenotypes, including suicidal behavior.

Methods: Here, we pooled data from 18 international cohorts with neuroimaging and clinical measurements in 18,925 participants (12,477 healthy control subjects and 6448 people with depression, of whom 694 had attempted suicide). We compared regional cortical thickness and surface area and measures of subcortical, lateral ventricular, and intracranial volumes between suicide attempters, clinical control subjects (nonattempters with depression), and healthy control subjects.

Results: We identified 25 regions of interest with statistically significant (false discovery rate < .05) differences between groups. Post hoc examinations identified neuroimaging markers associated with suicide attempt including smaller volumes of the left and right thalamus and the right pallidum and lower surface area of the left inferior parietal lobe.

Conclusions: This study addresses the lack of replicability and consistency in several previously published neuroimaging studies of suicide attempt and further demonstrates the need for well-powered samples and collaborative efforts. Our results highlight the potential involvement of the thalamus, a structure viewed historically as a passive gateway in the brain, and the pallidum, a region linked to reward response and positive affect. Future functional and connectivity studies of suicidal behaviors may focus on understanding how these regions relate to the neurobiological mechanisms of suicide attempt risk.

Keywords: Major depressive disorder; Structural magnetic resonance imaging; Suicide attempt.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Depressive Disorder, Major* / diagnostic imaging
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Neuroimaging
  • Suicide, Attempted*