According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. among adults 18-65, the second leading cause of death among teens and young adults, and accounts for 16% of all suicide deaths among individuals aged 65 and older.
Sadly, suicide statistics are higher than average among members of the U.S. military. Termed an “epidemic” among U.S. military personnel by Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, in July 2012, the Army announced that 38 soldiers were presumed dead by suicide that month alone, marking the highest number of recorded suicides since reporting began. Starting next week, a team of researchers will begin recruiting more than 300 U.S. at-risk veterans who will embark on a three-year, $10 million clinical trial that will examine an omega 3 smoothie as a potential weapon against suicide and related psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety and the propensity for binge drinking and self-harm.
The study, which is funded by the Military Operational Medicine Joint Program Committee (JPC-5) and managed by the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP), will be led by Bernadette Marriott, PhD, a professor in the Clinical Neuroscience Division of the Institute of Psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC); Capt. Joseph R. Hibbeln, MD, of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s Laboratory of Membrane Biochemistry and Biophysics; Ron Acierno, PhD, co-principal investigator with dual appointments at MUSC and the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center; and Hugh Myrick, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at MUSC and associate chief of staff for mental health at Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center.
The researchers are working with Smartfish, a Norwegian biotech company, which will supply 200 ml juice boxes that will contain either a placebo or 2,500 mg or omega 3 (2,000 mg EPA and DHA). The juice boxes are currently on the market in Norway. “The reason we’re using this product is that they’re in with another study and have been very well-received in previous studies,” said Dr. Marriott. “They’re small, they’re not a pill, they’re very tasty, and have no side effects.”
To guarantee compliance, the juices will have a specific, odorless and flavorless fatty acid added to them during the formulation process that will be only be detectable later on, as a marker during routine blood collections.
The study participants will consume two juice boxes per day for the duration of the study and will be subjected to a battery of assessments. “Because the hypothesis is that the omega 3s are going to have an impact on the emotional state and therefore their cognitive performance, we’ll be measuring and recording their levels of depression, anxiety, etc.,” Dr. Marriott explained to Nutraceuticals World. “This study will be conducted in addition to their regular treatment regimes; most of the individuals will already be registered through the VA because they are already deemed at risk for suicide, so they will continue their clinical treatment as normal.”
A pilot sub-study of the trial will look at the impact of omega 3 supplementation and alcohol consumption in suicidal veterans and suicidal veterans with alcohol use disorders. Dr. Marriott said that correlational and observational studies have shown that omega 3s reduce the addiction properties of alcohol, and that she and her colleagues hope to observe a behavioral reduction in alcohol binging.
“What we do know from suicide literature is that individuals who are classified as addicted to alcohol are at higher risk of impulsively and successfully harming themselves or attempting suicide after binging on alcohol,” she said. “Alcoholics are at risk for suicide if it’s a part of their clinical profile so we wanted to have a subgroup where we did additional assessment related to their alcohol consumption.”
An additional component of the study will focus on a subset group of recruits who will undergo brain fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans that will detail brain regions related to the study.
Dr. Hibbeln, a leading researcher in the effects of omega 3 fatty acids on psychiatric disorders, has long maintained the potential of dietary supplementation with omega 3s to substantially impact mental illness. “Research conducted in our lab during the last 20 years points to a fundamental role for omega 3 fatty acids in protecting against major depression, substance abuse and other problems,” he said. “Here we hope to be successful in understanding if omega 3 may play a role in reducing risk of severe suicidal behaviors among U.S. military veterans.”
Drs. Acierno and Myrick believed their team’s study findings could prove to be far-reaching. “Suicidal thoughts and behaviors cut across a variety of emotional problems faced by active duty personnel and veterans, from PTSD to depression to grief at losing a fellow soldier,” he said. “If we establish that this omega 3 treatment—a treatment with virtually no side effects—is effective at reducing the risk of suicide, we will have begun to pay back the debt of service we owe our Armed Forces personnel.”
“This study represents a novel intervention that could reduce the risk for suicide,” concluded Dr. Myrick. “If the results are positive, the impact on veterans, our current military personnel and society will be immeasurable.”