GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A groundbreaking study at the Van Andel Institute has tied a link between overactive inflammation and loss of critical protective mechanisms in the brain as a potential contributor to suicide risk.

The findings have created a greater interest in the exploration anti-inflammatory medication to reduce risk, especially when signs of suicidal ideation are discovered in a patient.

The study was published in the journal, Molecular Psychiatry, and led by VAI’s Lena Brundin, M.D., Ph.D., Columbia University Department of Psychiatry’s J. John Mann, M.D., and Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine’s Eric Achtyes, M.D., M.S.

“As suicide rates continue to rise, we must develop additional evidence-based strategies to address all the factors that contribute to suicide risk,” Brundin said. “Our study pinpoints several key changes in the brain that one day could be targeted for treatment with the goal of reducing risk and saving lives.”

The research built off an earlier finding that suggested inflammation may cause toxic imbalances in the brain that can lead to suicidal behavior. The new finding works to identify what drives the inflammation.

The study consisted of a team comparing the brains of 29 people who died by suicide to brains of 32 people who died from other causes. Overall, the team found increased inflammation in the brains of those that died from suicide.

“Our goal is to prevent suicide by better understanding the brain function associated with it,” Mann said. “We focused on the brain because that’s where the biological processes that affect mood, suicidal ideation and intent, and decision making reside. This study enabled us to see the brain at the moment of greatest risk and pinpoint biological markers of that risk.”

This study as been the most thorough analysis to date of integrated gene methylation and transciptomic data derived from the brains of people who died by suicide. Gene methylation is the process your body uses to switch “on” or “off” genes. It was this process that led to inflammation in the people who died by suicide.

Along with this study, Brundin, Mann and Achtyes, are working to figure out a method to determine suicidal risk through a blood test. This would allow for easier identification of suicidal risk and earlier intervention for treatment. Future studies will focus on further understanding of inflammations role in suicide risk, searching for biomarkers and devising strategies to evaluate potential treatment options.

“Clinicians desperately need enhanced ways to identify patients at increased risk of suicide,” Achtyes said. “Detecting patterns in molecular markers to flag those at heightened risk could be a valuable tool for helping individuals who are struggling.”

The confidential 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is free and available 24/7 by dialing or texting 988.