Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of
the brain can be used to screen soldiers (and civilians) for a high
risk of committing suicide, according to a study of 50 IDF personnel
conducted by Tel Aviv University researchers.
study, headed by Prof. Talma Hendler of the university's Sackler
Faculty of Medicine's psychology and psychiatry department and Tel Aviv
Sourasky Medical Center's brain function center, was recently published
in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
(PNAS), a US journal.
High risk for suicide was gauged by assessing which soldiers
were vulnerable to symptoms connected to post-traumatic stress disorder
(PTSD). The brain regions most relevant to the prediction are the
amygdala (responsible for emotional processing in the brain and warning
people to avoid danger), the hippocampus (which processes memory), and
the prefrontal cortex (which gives emotional and personal significance
Two-fifths of all individuals will at some time in their life
experience at least one significant traumatic event, and most of them
will react soon after with PTSD symptoms such as anxiety, bad moods,
sleep problems and upsetting thoughts.
About one-fifth of these are liable to suffer from
long-term PTSD symptoms such as depression and post-traumatic anxiety,
while others will recover without therapy.
Until now, except for certain blood tests developed
experimentally at Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem,
there has been no objective way to determine who will recover on their
own and who will need help. Since early diagnosis and treatment are
vital for preventing long-term PTSD, a harmless scan could prove
beneficial, said Hendler.
IDF paramedics - who volunteered for the study
and constitute the first line of soldiers who treat the wounded - were
tested before their basic training and 18 months later when they were
already working as battlefield paramedics.
During their service, two-thirds of the paramedics reported
having increased stress symptoms such as nightmares, repeated
unpleasant thoughts and a bad moods. The fMRI scans showed that these
symptoms increased when the amygdala was more active just before
exposure to traumatic events and the hippocampus was more active after
The tests also showed that as the negative symptoms developed,
the hippocampus communicated less with the prefrontal cortex. This
demonstrates flexibility in brain activity and brain regions connected
with emotional reactions to stress, Hendler said. This finding points
to the potential of changing the brain using medications or
psychological treatment after exposure to trauma.
The findings, she concluded, show that "there is a model of
activity and brain reaction characteristic of every individual, who can
be sent for early individual treatment after being exposed to a
However, Hendler suggested that fMRI should not be used as a
tool to keep individual soldiers out of sensitive military units but to
help psychiatrists and psychologist treat the more susceptible soldiers
earlier and better.
Meanwhile, World Suicide Prevention Day will be marked around
the globe on Thursday. The International Association for Suicide
Prevention (established nearly 50 years ago) set aside the day to
promote the prevention of suicidal behavior, alleviating its effects
and providing a forum for academics, mental health professionals,
crisis workers, volunteers and suicide survivors.