More than 300 U.S. veterans will be drinking omega-3 smoothies as part of a multi-organizational research study attempting to demonstrate that the best weapon against suicide in the military, and among veterans, may just be a common dietary supplement.
Bernadette Marriott, Ph.D., a professor in the clinical neuroscience division of the Institute of Psychiatry, proposes that daily supplementation of omega-3 highly unsaturated fatty acids (HUFAs) will reduce the risks of mental illness and suicide among veterans who are determined to be at increased risk for suicidal behaviors. 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.
The Military Operational Medicine Joint Program Committee (JPC-5) funded the study, and will be managed by the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs. Researchers from MUSC, the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), which is part of the National Institutes of Health, will be awarded a $10 million contract to carry out the research during the next three years. The award comes at a time of unprecedented number of suicides in the military.
In July, the Army announced that 38 soldiers were presumed dead by suicide that month alone, marking the highest number of recorded suicides since reporting began. 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 individuals ages 65 and older account for 16 percent of all suicide deaths.
Capt. Joseph R. Hibbeln, M.D., of NIAAA'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. Based on previous studies, he 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."
Ron Acierno, Ph.D., co-principal investigator with dual appointments at MUSC and the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, believes that based on what investigators already know about how omega-3 levels affect the brain, 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. 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," he said.
Another co-principal investigator of the study, Hugh Myrick, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at MUSC and associate chief of staff for mental health at Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, said, "This study represents a novel intervention that could reduce the risk for suicide. If the results are positive, the impact on veterans, our current military personnel, and society will be immeasurable."