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About 40 Percent of Youth Make First Suicide Attempt Before High School

By Molly McElroy, News and Information, University of Washington

Having suicidal thoughts and engaging in suicidal behavior may begin at much younger ages than previously thought. While about one of nine youths attempt suicide by the time they graduate from high school, new findings reveal that a significant proportion makes their first suicide attempt in elementary or middle school.

In a study published in the November issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health, nearly 40 percent of young adults who said they had tried suicide said that they made their first attempt before entering high school.

The researchers also found that suicide attempts during childhood and adolescence were linked to higher scores of depression at the time of the attempts, validating for the first time that young adults can reliably recall when they first attempted suicide.

As part of an ongoing survey, researchers asked 883 young adults aged 18 or 19 about their history of suicide attempts. Nearly 9 percent, 78 respondents, said that they had tried suicide at some point.

Suicide-attempt rates showed a sharp increase around 6th grade, about age 12, with rates peaking around 8th or 9th grade. For the 39 respondents reporting multiple suicide attempts, their first attempt was significantly earlier—as young as 9—than those making a single attempt.

Click here for more information, or contact James Mazza, lead author and professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, at 206-616-6373, or

Dream Sleep Takes Sting Out of Painful Memories

By Yasmin Anwar, Media Relations, University of California, Berkeley

New research indicates that time spent in dream sleep can help us overcome painful ordeals. UC Berkeley researchers have found that during the dream phase of sleep, also known as REM sleep, our stress chemistry shuts down and the brain processes emotional experiences and takes the edge off of difficult memories.

The results offer some of the first insights into the emotional function of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, which typically takes up 20 percent of a healthy human’s sleeping hours. Previous brain studies indicate that sleep patterns are disrupted in people with mood disorders such as PTSD and depression.

Thirty–five healthy young adults participated in the study. They were divided into two groups. Members of each group twice viewed 150 emotional images, 12 hours apart, while an MRI scanner measured their brain activity.

Half of the participants viewed the images in the morning and again in the evening, staying awake between the two viewings. The remaining half viewed the images in the evening and again the next morning after a full night of sleep.

Those who slept in between viewing the images reported a significant decrease in their emotional reaction to the images. In addition, MRI scans showed a dramatic reduction in reactivity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that processes emotions, allowing the brain’s “rational” prefrontal cortex to regain control of the participants’ emotional reactions.

The researchers also recorded the electrical brain activity of the participants while they slept, using electroencephalograms. They found that during REM dream sleep, certain electrical activity patterns decreased, showing that reduced levels of stress neurochemicals in the brain soothed emotional reactions to the previous day’s experiences.

Click here for more information.

Legal Drinking Age Linked to Women’s Risk of Suicide and Homicide

Lowering the legal drinking age to under 21 is linked to a higher risk of homicides and suicides among adult women, according to new research.

Since 1984, the legal drinking age in the United States has been 21. Richard A. Grucza, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and his co-authors used data from the U.S. Multiple Cause of Death files, 1990–2004, along with data on living populations from the U.S. Census and American Community Survey. The combined data contained records on more than 200,000 suicides and 130,000 homicides for individuals who turned 18 between 1967–1989, when the legal drinking ages were in flux.

“In this study, we found that youth who lived in states with lower drinking ages remain at elevated risk for suicide and homicide as adults,” Grucza says. “The effect seems to be specific for women.”

Grucza said suicide and homicide are very different phenomena.

“Female homicide victims are killed by acquaintances in 92 percent of cases. Lower drinking ages elevate rates of alcohol problems, which may contribute to alcohol-fueled domestic violence.” Grucza said. “For suicide, alcohol may contribute to the severity of suicide attempts. In general, women attempt suicide more often than men, but men are more likely to complete—or die from—suicide. Alcohol problems may tip the balance by turning attempts into completions more often. This would be particularly risky for women because of their higher number of suicide attempts.”

Many scientists say the adolescent brain is especially vulnerable to the effects of drugs, including alcohol, Grucza said.

“We saw drinking-age changes as a ‘natural experiment’ to see what happens to young people who have easy access to alcohol compared to those whose access is restricted,” he says. “If early drinking is a true risk factor for alcoholism, we would see multiple adverse long-term consequences among people who lived under more permissive drinking age laws as youth—and we did.”

The study, “The Legacy of Minimum Legal Drinking Age Law Changes: Long-Term Effects on Suicide and Homicide Deaths Among Women,” is available online and will be published in the February 2012 issue ofAlcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. 

Click here for more information.


A Discussion of the Neuroscience of Decision-Making

Researchers are beginning to decipher what exactly happens in our brains when we are making decisions. The Kavli Foundation invited three experts in the field to discuss the genesis of this cutting-edge field and potential practical applications of research on decision-making:

  • Daeyeol Lee, PhD, Department of Neurobiology and Kavli Institute for Neuroscience, Yale University School of Medicine
  • C. Daniel Salzman, MD, PhD., Department of Psychiatry and Neuroscience and Kavli Institute for Brain Science, Columbia University School of Medicine
  • Xiao-Jing Wang; PhD, Department of Neurobiology, Physics and Psychology; Director, Swartz Program in Theoretical Neurobiology; Kavli Institute of Neuroscience, Yale University School of Medicine

Following is an excerpt of the researchers’ responses to the Kavli Foundation’s question about what they envision to be the practical applications of research on the neuroscience of decision-making.

LEE: The most immediate one is to understand the biological basis of mental disorders.

SALZMAN: We really don’t understand at a systemic level how psychiatric disorders result from dysfunction of neural circuits that produce different cognitive and emotional symptoms, and that thereby affect decision-making. We also don’t understand how psychiatric treatments work—how they change neural activity in the brain. …

… if you are asking what will be the better treatment in 20, 40 or 100 years, those treatments are only going to arise if we come up with a better understanding of how cognition and emotion work and interact in the brain to produce things like decisions, because then we can begin to understand how they become dysfunctional. That kind of long-term investment in the basic science of the brain is going to be key to figuring out a wide range of psychiatric disorders.

WANG: Yes. In fact, as an example, our new knowledge about the cellular and circuit mechanisms of working memory and decision processes in the brain has already had a significant impact on clinical studies of mental illness. For instance, addiction is fundamentally a problem of making bad choices, resulting from impaired reward signaling and decision-making circuits in the brain. Understanding these circuits has become key to linking genes and molecules with behavior in clinical studies.

LEE: We also need to understand the neurobiological basis for individual variability in decision making. When people face the same decision, they tend to make different choices. Some of that is due to their different experiences and learning environment. There are also fundamental genetic differences that give rise to different decision-making styles. 

Click here for more information.