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Biology 202
2003 First Web Paper
On Serendip

"Why? The Neuroscience of Suicide": Further Research into the Effect of Serotonin on the Brain in Suicide Patients

Clarissa Griebel

While this writer had some rudimentary knowledge of the impact serotonin had on the brain, "Why? The Neuroscience of Suicide" by Carol Ezzell piqued my curiosity on the role levels of serotonin and the process by which it is absorbed in the brain affect suicidal patients. This article was recently posted on the Neurology and Behavior website as supplemental reading for neurology and behavior's spring semester 2003 class. In this article the writer Carol Ezzell weaves her own personal experience with informative reporting of groundbreaking neuroscience research on suicide. Through further research I discovered various articles on a group of scientists from Columbia University doing research on the difference in people's brains whom have attempted suicide and or succeeded.

It is widely accepted that the level of serotonin present in the brain has a significant affect on the behavior of an individual, specifically, an individuals mood. SSRI's (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) are common medications that treat major depression. Thus affecting the mood of an individual. Some would argue improving the quality of life of people who suffer from clinical depression.

The amount of serotonin in the brain has an affect on an individual's behavior. "Low levels of the chemical are associated with clinical depression". (1) According to an article in "Time Domestic" entitled Suicide Check, serotonin may not reach some parts of the brain in adequate amounts in suicide victims. The article cites a study by Dr. John Mann of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. Dr. Mann's study "...focuses on a section of white matter-the orbital cortex-that sits just above the eyes and modulates impulse control. In autopsies of 20 suicide victims, Mann's group found that in almost every case, not enough serotonin had reached that key portion of the brain". (1)

Roughly seven years later Carol Ezzell revisits Dr. Mann's research with his colleague Victoria Arango. Arango's research, presented in 2001, at a conference of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology had determined that "people who were depressed and died by suicide contained fewer neurons in the orbital prefrontal cortex" and that "in suicide brains, that area had one third the number of presynaptic serotonin transporters that control the brains had but roughly 30 percent more post synaptic serotonin receptors". (2) This means that the brain is trying extra hard to deliver whatever serotonin it could produce to the correct part of the brain. This system of serotonin production and absorption is known as the serotonergic system. The serotonergic system is what Arango believes is deficient in people who attempt or commit suicide. (2)

Arango and Mann are developing a positron emission tomography (PET) test that measures serotonergic system. This system would monitor the areas of the brain using serotonin "in patients who have the most skewed serotonin circuitry and are therefore at highest risk of suicide". (2)

None of these articles in anyway suggest that an individual with serotonin deficiency will be a victim of suicide. Victoria Arango of the New York State Psychiatric Institute says the occurrence of suicide "starts with having an underlying biological risk" but that "life experience, acute stress and psychological factors each play a part". (2) The possibility of this predisposition means in the future diagnosis and prevention of the possibility of suicide could be easier.

Today individuals are conscious of genetic traits, which give them a higher chance of heart attacks or breast cancer, and have the ability to alter their behavior (i.e. smoking and nutrition) accordingly. Would the same be applicable to the possibility of suicide? Meaning before it becomes a reality, sufferers of this disorder would be able to have choices to take care of themselves accordingly using therapy and medication as a way of avoiding the possibility of disastrous consequences. New developments in this area of neuroscience will have an affect on the care given in the future to suicidal patients.

1) Bipolar Disorder; Complete Digest of information
2)Scientific American.com
3)Reutershealth,com
4)Psychiatric Institute 2000


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