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Suicide Prevention Research

NIMH researcher Dr. Douglas Meinecke talks about critical suicide prevention research.

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Announcer: Urgency. It’s a word associated with all brain disorder research projects funded by the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda. That’s especially true when it comes to the complexities of suicide prevention. The goal is to gain greater understanding of the illness, through research, leading to prevention strategies and practical tools for treatment. For researchers like Dr. Douglas Meinecke of NIMH, the many research questions include: Can suicide be categorized as a developmental disorder?

Dr. Douglas Meinecke: Suicide is a little bit more difficult to pin down as, quote, a developmental disorder. And why do we say that? Is that when do people attempt suicide, why do they attempt it, and when are they expressing suicidal ideations? And that can occur throughout the lifespan. It doesn’t necessarily happen at a particular time. And it varies in socioeconomic conditions, it varies in social conditions, and it varies epidemiologically across different groups of people. So, it may have a developmental component, but we just don’t know it.

Announcer: Dr. Meinecke also believes family history is a vital area of research.

Meinecke: The reason to look at families with a history of suicide is, of course, the genetics. Is there a predisposing biological contribution to suicide ideation or suicidology per se? And I would say that — that right now that study is more or less in its infancy, is asking: Are there genes that predispose one to suicide? Can those genes be found in family members? And what are the contributions of those genes and their interactions with other genes and environmental factors contributory? So, I would say that that is an emerging area of research rather than an established area of research.

Announcer: There are distinct methods of suicide prevention research: among them, advanced neuroimaging.

Meinecke: …where you ask patients who might have suicidal ideations or may have already attempted suicide: Is there something about the way their brains behave normally in an imaging machine as you look at their function that’s different in those people versus normals? And would that tell you something about the underlying disorder?

Announcer: Another significant question for researchers like Dr. Meinecke is what will be the role of drugs in preventing suicide.

Meinecke: If, in fact, there is a neurobiology of suicide, if there is a specific difference or specific set of differences in brains of individuals who are at risk for suicide, the obvious question would- be: Can we fix it? Can we change it? Can we make it better? And I hope the answer is yes. Right now, among the many findings we have, there is hope in suggesting that that is true. But actually having implementable drugs or useable pharmacologic strategies is not yet at a mature state.

Announcer: As critical suicide prevention research moves forward, there is the constant reminder that mental disorders are among the most complex disorders of biology.

Meinecke: The brain is the last frontier of biology. It’s a very complex organ. And these disorders are among the most complex, because they deal with human behavior which, of course, is very complex, and its biology and its interaction with environment. But more and more investigators and more and more people are interested in these complex issues, and so, suicide is one of those that’s enjoying a resurgence of a lot of interest and has momentum.