University of Minnesota researchers are searching for electrical signals in the brain that could provide earlier warnings about severe depression and suicidal impulses.

Doctors already use proven questionnaires to identify depression, but lack reliable tools to determine which patients are at risk for self-harm, said Dr. Alik Widge, a U psychiatrist who is leading the project — called Fast, Reliable Electrical Unconscious Detection, or FREUD.

"Our rate of predicting who is going to attempt suicide in the next three months is terrible," he said. "We're a little better than chance, but we're not nearly as good as we need to be."

Some patients might not recognize they are at risk, while others might not admit to suicidal impulses, even to therapists. Widge said the goal is to create a "lying-to-yourself detector" that identifies brain signals that are unique and common to people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts or psychosis.

The final product could be a hat that people wear in clinics to measure their responses to different images or statements on computer screens.

"The technology vision here is something that would be simple and unobtrusive," he said.

The study is funded by the Department of Defense, which wants to create a mental health version of the MRI — the imaging scan that detects soft-tissue damage before it results in disabling physical injuries. Suicides of soldiers and veterans since Sept. 11, 2001, have quadrupled deaths in post-9/11 military operations, underscoring the need.

Suicide has been a rising public health problem among civilians as well; a Minnesota Department of Health data brief showed an increase in suicides from 480 in 2001 to about 835 last year.

Depression screening has increased in response. Nearly 72% of adults with depression took the PHQ-9, a quick questionnaire for assessing their conditions, when visiting their primary care clinics, according to 2021 data from MN Community Measurement.

Many people have trouble acknowledging thoughts of suicide, especially people like doctors or police officers who worry that such disclosures could threaten their jobs, Widge said. The dilemma is that people in high-stress jobs are at elevated risk.

"What we want to try to do is find those moments of conflict when someone has a part of them that wants to speak up and ask for help, but its fighting another part of them that is saying, 'Shut up! Keep your head down,'" he said.

The research team includes experts in neural signaling from the University of Washington in Seattle and Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. Software company Intheon is part of the group along with, which is exploring other biometric indicators of mental illness such as voice patterns, eye movement and facial expression.

Widge said one long-term goal is to get beyond detection and use the biometric information to come up with more effective therapies for preventing suicide.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor.