Researchers believe they have identified key brain networks that interact to increase the risk of thinking or attempting suicide.
About 800,000 people die globally from suicide each year and it is the second leading cause of death between the ages of 15-29.
Anne-Laura van Harmelen, co-first author at Cambridge University, said: "We know very little about what is going on in the brain, why there are gender differences and what makes young people especially vulnerable to suicide."
Scientists reviewed 20 years of literature related to brain imaging studies of suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
They analyzed 131 studies, which covered more than 12,000 individuals, analyzing changes in brain structure and function that may increase an individual's risk of suicide.
According to the study published in Molecular Psychiatry, they have identified two brain networks – and the connections between them – that appear to play an important role.
One involves areas towards the front of the brain, known as the medial and lateral ventral prefrontal cortex, and their connections to other brain regions involved in emotion.
Scientists say changes in this network can lead to excessive negative thoughts and difficulties in regulating emotions, spurring suicidal thoughts.
The second involves regions known as the dorsal prefrontal cortex and lower frontal gyrus system.
Changes in this network may influence suicide attempts, in part because of their role in decision-making, generating alternative solutions to problems and controlling behavior, the researchers say.
They suggest that if the two networks are altered in terms of structure, function, or biochemistry, this may lead to situations in which an individual thinks negatively about the future and is unable to control his thoughts.
This could lead to situations where they are most at risk for suicide, the study suggests.
Hilary Blumberg, John and Hope Furth, professor of psychiatric neuroscience at Yale, said: "The review provides evidence to support a very hopeful future in which we will find new and improved ways to reduce the risk of suicide."
Scientists say there is an urgent need for further research to ascertain whether the proposed model is related to future suicide attempts and whether any therapy can change the structure or function of these brain networks and thereby reduce the risk of suicide.
Co-first author Dr. Lianne Schmaal of the University of Melbourne said: "The biggest predictor of suicide death is the previous suicide attempt, so it is essential that we can intervene as early as possible to reduce an individual's risk. .
"For many individuals, this will be during adolescence. If we can find a way to identify at-risk youth, we will have a chance to intervene and help them at this important stage in their lives."
:: Anyone who feels emotionally distressed or suicidal can call the Samaritans for help through 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org in the United Kingdom. In the US, call your local Samaritan branch or 1 (800) 273-TALK.