MUSC to study suicides in military

Staff Report
Published Oct. 9, 2012

The Medical University of South Carolina is partnering on a study to determine if a common dietary supplement could be a tool to combating suicide among soldiers.

More than 300 U.S. veterans will drink omega-3 smoothies as a part of a research study conducted by MUSC, The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

The $10 million contract will test the idea that daily supplements of omega-3 highly unsaturated fatty acids reduce the risk of mental illness and suicide among veterans who have been determined to be at an increased risk for suicidal behaviors.

A pilot sub-study of the trial will look at the supplementation of omega-3 and alcohol consumption in suicidal veterans and suicidal veterans with alcohol use disorders.

Funding is provided by the Military Operational Medicine Joint Program Committee, and the study comes after an unusually high number of military suicides. In July, the Army announced 38 soldiers were presumed dead by suicide that month alone — the highest number of monthly suicides since reporting began.

Capt. Joseph R. Hibbeln, of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s Laboratory of Membrane Biochemistry and Biophysics, and a co-investigator on the MUSC omega-3 trial, is a leading researcher in the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on psychiatric disorders.

“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,” Hibbeln 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."

Ron Acierno, co-principal investigator with dual appointments at MUSC and the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, said he believes that based on what researchers already know about how omega-3 levels affect the brain, the 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 (post-traumatic stress disorder) 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.”

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