Suicide claims twice as many lives as homicide each year, and it is the second-leading cause of death in people aged 18-29, according to Binghamton University’s Mood Disorders Institute. Doctoral candidate Aliona Tsypes is looking for new ways to study the factors that cause suicide, and possibly save lives.
Although most suicide research is based on information given by those who have attempted to end their own lives, one graduate student at BU is looking to take a more proactive approach to such studies.
Tsypes, a doctoral student studying clinical psychology, argues that these “self-reports” are only one angle of a complicated issue, and is researching the neural and cognitive responses in the brain that affect suicidal thoughts.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions in suicide research and there really is a lack of more objective data,” Tsypes said. “We’re just trying to get the bigger picture of a really complex behavior.”
Tsypes graduated from CUNY Hunter College with a BA in psychology. Before coming to BU, she worked at the New York State Psychiatric Institute in Columbia University Medical Center, working on a project evaluating the effectiveness of suicide prevention hotlines. After receiving the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in 2013, she came to BU with her research proposal to analyze aspects of suicide previously not studied, which was recently approved by the University’s Institutional Review Board.
“I’m more interested in what’s happening in their brain, their attention, how they act in daily life, how they respond to emotion, how they sleep,” Tsypes said. “Because all of these things have been linked to suicide.”
Her research plan includes recruiting 60 people from the greater Binghamton area through Craigslist and previous studies of this nature. Twenty of them will have a history of depression but no suicide attempts, while another 20 will have a history of depression and have previous suicide attempts. The final 20 people will be the control group with no history of depression or suicide.
After conducting an initial diagnostic interview to examine a subject’s history of self-harm and asking the subjects to fill out questionnaires about their daily life, Tsypes will monitor a subject’s response during performed tasks in lab sessions using a variety of methods that analyze cognitive responses.
Methods include showing each subject pictures of emotional faces on a computer screen and examining the reactions and shifts in attention, using a head monitor to record brain activity and an eye tracker to examine what a subject is looking at.
Tsypes also said she plans to observe the sleep patterns of subjects with an actigraph, a watch-like sensor designed to record sleep cycles, movement and light exposure.
“The person doesn’t necessarily know what type of cognitive process is responsible for their inability to find effective solutions to problem solving,” Tsypes said. “So we’re trying to integrate that and get a better understanding of attention, emotional response and how they go together.”
Brandon Gibb, the director of BU’s Mood Disorders Institute and Tsypes’ adviser, said her research will provide a better understanding of how different facets of daily life increase the risk of self-harm.
“Rather than studying each of these factors in isolation, her research will give us a better sense of how they operate together to increase risk,” Gibb said.
By having a better understanding of the brain and body in relation to suicide, Tsypes hopes that her research will help benefit the treatment of people who attempt suicide.
“The goal is to have a more personalized treatment based on what information we get and how those things work for each person,” Tsypes said.