Street Talk: Detecting suicide risk


A national collaboration that includes two local partners has received a $3.6 million federal grant to help determine whether suicide risk can be detected in the blood.

Pine Rest, the Van Andel Institute and Columbia University received the five-year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health for a study that aims to identify blood-based biomarkers for suicide risk, laying the foundation for a test that could help physicians identify people who are likely to self-harm and allow for earlier, life-saving intervention.

The study is a collaboration between Van Andel Institute’s Dr. Lena Brundin, Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services’ Dr. Eric Achtyes and Columbia University Department of Psychiatry’s Dr. John Mann.

“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.”

Inflammation is the body’s reaction to harmful stimuli, such as infection, injury or chronic disease. It is marked by a cascade of white blood cells, which produce chemicals that help resolve the problem and jump-start the healing process. However, inflammation is a short-term fix; when it continues past the point it is needed, it can have devastating consequences, the partners said.

For example, growing evidence — including findings from the labs of Brundin, Achtyes and Mann — suggest that sustained inflammation may cause a toxic imbalance that alters brain chemistry and elevates suicide risk. In addition to searching for markers, the team will work to identify the inflammatory mechanisms that give rise to depressive and suicidal symptoms with the goal of developing ways to stop them.

During the five-year study, slated to begin enrolling at Pine Rest in October, 160 people will be followed for one year and provide blood specimens along with clinical information. Participants will be selected from those who are admitted to the inpatient hospital or the outpatient clinics and 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 tandem with the clinical study, the team will search for inflammatory markers in brain tissue samples from people who have died by suicide. The samples are housed at the New York State Psychiatric Institute Brain Bank at Columbia University.

“Suicidal behavior often occurs during an acute crisis or stress affecting a person with a psychiatric illness,” Mann said. “Similarly, inflammation can be triggered by life stress or an acute psychiatric illness and can alter brain function, which may result in depression, fatigue and irritability. In some cases, this can lead to a suicide attempt.

“We plan to track stress and inflammation in psychiatric patients and link fluctuations in their levels to suicidal thoughts and actions in order to find ways to help prevent suicidal behavior.”

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 2001-17, suicide rates in the U.S. climbed 31%, from 10.7 to 14 people per 100,000, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Rolling along

Truck drivers transporting wine and liquor to store shelves across the state are being recognized for their contributions to the industry this month.

Great Lakes Wine and Spirits, a statewide wine and spirits distributor, is honoring its more than 180 truck drivers during National Truck Driver Appreciation Week, Sept. 8-14.

“National Truck Driver Appreciation Week is a great opportunity for us to thank our experienced drivers for their hard work every day to ensure Michiganders’ favorite wines and spirits arrive safe and fresh to retailers across the state,” said Lewis Cooper III, co-CEO of GLWAS. “Our drivers are on the frontlines every day interacting with retailers and consumers ensuring fresh product gets to market, and we’re proud of how well they represent Great Lakes Wine and Spirits.”

Throughout the week, drivers will be greeted with banners at each GLAWS warehouse thanking them for their work, and each driver will receive a gift bag. GLWAS will provide drivers with meals throughout the week, including breakfast, lunch and snacks. Drivers also can take part in daily drawings to win useful tools, coolers or hats and a larger drawing to cap National Driver Appreciation Week on Friday, Sept. 13.

Great Lakes Wine and Spirits employs more than 900 people across the state, operating warehouses in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Highland Park, Detroit, Gaylord, Marquette, Traverse City and Saginaw.

The company services nearly 17,000 accounts.

Digging it

Grand Rapids Community College has never had a student asked to do a presentation for the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting. But this year, three GRCC students — and one alumnus — have been invited to share their work at the national event. 

The conference, which will be held Sept. 22-25 in Phoenix, is one of the largest gatherings of geoscientists in the world with thousands attending from more than 50 countries.

“GSA is an amazing opportunity for our students to not only learn about the latest and greatest geology research, but they can connect with peers and even future employers,” said professor Tari Mattox. “We are excited for the geology community to get a glimpse of our awesome and talented students and their work.”

Two of the students, Maegan Bouwens and Madison Jones, will present the results of the four weeks they spent studying 34-million- to 56-million-year-old igneous rocks in El Paso, Texas, this summer through a fully funded research experience at the University of Texas at El Paso. Bouwens and Jones were among only seven students selected nationwide for the project.

“It was exciting to have the opportunity to conduct my own research as a community college student,” Jones said. “I loved meeting other geology students and bonding with them over the course of a month.”

Student Ryleigh Landstra will join Mattox and John VanRegenmorter, of the Physical Sciences Department, to discuss GRCC’s efforts to reorganize and catalog its fossils, which resulted in the discovery of many specimens from the famous collector Charles H. Sternberg and his three sons.

Sternberg is a big name in the paleo field, so the GRCC collection is an important discovery, Landstra said.

“Though we weren’t able to conclusively determine how and why the collection ended up at GRCC, our best guess is that his son was trying to sell off old specimens they had kept around, and GRCC was one of the buyers,” Landstra said.

Alumnus Michael Coluzzi, who graduated from Ferris State University this past spring with a bachelor’s in digital animation and game design, worked with Mattox and fellow FSU students Jacob Pollak, Logan Brown and Dominic Modderman on creating a virtual reality field trip for geology students.

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