Scientists have detected a new abnormality in the brains of suicide victims, a discovery that may improve identification and treatment of suicide-prone people, it was reported Tuesday.

Researchers from New York University and Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science compared the brains of 12 suicide victims who had not been on psychiatric drugs with 12 people who died of other causes.Researchers found suicide victims' brain cells had between two and nine times the number of protein structures called opioid receptors as other people's brains. The biggest difference was in brain areas involved with sensory and motor function.

The people who killed themselves also had 50 percent less of another type of opioid receptor, called delta, in several brain regions, including the area that governs memory.

"We may be able to find a whole new family of drugs that act on these receptors, help treat depression and prevent suicide," said Anat Biegon, a neurobiologist at New York University and co-author of the study.

However, Biegon said it is not known if living people who attempt suicide or non-suicidal depressed people have opioid receptor imbalances similar to suicide victims'. Also unknown is whether the unusual distribution stems from too high or too low levels of opioids in the brain.