Can suicide risk be detected in the blood?

Five-year, $3.6 million federal grant to fuel search for biomarker-based methods to evaluate suicide risk

Dr. Lena Brundin

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (Aug. 28, 2019) — A new clinical study 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 project is the first longitudinal study of its kind, and is a collaboration between Van Andel Institute’s Lena Brundin, M.D., Ph.D., Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services’ Eric Achtyes, M.D., M.S., and Columbia University Department of Psychiatry’s J. John Mann, M.D. It is supported by a newly awarded five-year, $3.6 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health.

“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.”

Dr. Eric Achtyes
Dr. Eric Achtyes

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 jumpstart the healing process. However, inflammation is a short-term fix; when it continues past the point it is needed, it can have devastating consequences.

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, which is 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.

Dr. J John Mann
Dr. J John Mann

“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 to 2017, suicide rates in the U.S. climbed 31 percent, from 10.7 to 14 people per 100,000, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

The confidential National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is free and available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Research reported in this publication is supported by the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health under award no. 1R01MH118221 (Brundin, Achtyes, Mann). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.


Van Andel Institute (VAI) is an independent nonprofit biomedical research and science education organization committed to improving the health and enhancing the lives of current and future generations. Established by Jay and Betty Van Andel in 1996 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, VAI has grown into a premier research and educational institution that supports the work of more than 400 scientists, educators and staff. VAI’s research division is dedicated to determining the epigenetic, genetic, molecular and cellular origins of cancer, Parkinson’s and other diseases and translating those findings into effective therapies. The Institute’s scientists work in onsite laboratories and participate in collaborative partnerships that span the globe. Learn more about Van Andel Institute at vai.org.


Pine Rest, the fourth largest behavioral health provider in the U.S., has been the preeminent partner in West Michigan for decades. It is the proven leader in behavioral health services in the region. It offers a full continuum of services including inpatient and partial hospitalization, residential and outpatient services, addiction treatment and recovery, extensive child and adolescent programs, senior care services, as well as specialized assessment and treatment clinics. In addition to the main campus in Grand Rapids, Pine Rest also has 19 outpatient locations throughout West Michigan and Iowa. It is the most qualified to serve local behavioral health care needs. For more information, go to www.pinerest.org.


The Columbia University Department of Psychiatry is among the top ranked psychiatry departments in the nation and has contributed greatly to the understanding and treatment of brain disorders. Co-located at the New York State Psychiatric Institute on the New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Irving Medical Center campus in Washington Heights, the department enjoys a rich and productive collaborative relationship with physicians in various disciplines at the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Columbia Psychiatry is home to distinguished clinicians and researchers noted for their clinical and research advances in the diagnosis and treatment of depression, suicide, schizophrenia, bipolar and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, substance use disorders, and childhood psychiatric disorders.

Related Reading
VAI Voice: Research brief: Targeting inflammation in suicide risk

Media Contacts
Beth Hinshaw Hall
Van Andel Institute
[email protected]

Colleen Cullison
Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services
[email protected]

Gregory Flynn
Columbia University Department of Psychiatry
[email protected]

Media assets available: portrait of Dr. Lena Brundin, portrait of Dr. Eric Achtyes, portrait of Dr. J. John Mann, embedded video.