GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A new, clinical study aims to identify the possibility of discovering suicide risk in the blood -- laying the foundation for a test that could help physicians identify people who are likely to self-harm and allow for earlier, life-saving prevention. 

The project is the first of its kind and a collaboration between the Van Andel Institute's Lena Brundin, M.D., Ph.D., Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services’ Eric Achtyes, M.D., M.S., and Columbia University Department of Psychiatry’s J. John Mann, M.D. 

The team was recently granted a five-year, $3.6-million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, which is part of the overarching National Institutes of Health. 

“Suicide is a leading cause of death in the U.S. and, unfortunately, rates continue to increase,” Brundin said. “Suicidal ideation is more than mental --  there are measurable biological contributors such as byproducts of chronic inflammation that influence a person’s likelihood for self-harm. Leveraging these markers could hold the key to helping people before it is too late.” 

According to a release from the Van Andel, inflammation is the body's reaction to harmful stimuli like infection, injury or chronic disease. Inflammation is a short-term fix and when it continues past the point it's needed by the body, it can have devastating consequences. Growing evidence -- including findings from the labs of Brundin, Achtyes and Mann -- suggests sustained inflammation may cause a toxic imbalance that alters brain chemistry and elevates suicide risk. 

The team will be searching for blood-based biomarkers, or red flags in the blood system -- for suicide risk, as well as working to identify the inflammatory mechanisms that give risk to depressive and suicidal symptoms. The goal is to develop ways to stop the symptoms. 

During the five-year study, which is slated to start enrolling at Pine Rest in October, 160 people will be followed for one year and provide blood samples and clinical information. Study participants will be selected from those who are admitted to the inpatient hospital or the outpatient clinics. They will be divided into two groups -- those who are depressed with suicidal thoughts or behaviors and those who present with depression alone. 

“Clinicians are looking for tools to help them identify individuals who are at highest risk for suicide among those who are depressed,” Achtyes said. “We are hopeful this study will help us develop these tools to better understand who is at imminent risk.”

In 2017, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death overall in the U.S. and the second leading cause of death among people ages 10–34. From 2001 to 2017, suicide rates in the U.S. climbed 31 percent, from 10.7 to 14 people per 100,000, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. 

The confidential National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is free and available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). 

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