A new app and blood test can predict suicide risk with startling accuracy, study says

By Ariana Eunjung Cha, The Washington Post August 24, 2015

One of the most promising — and most terrifying — areas of medical research these days is technology designed to try to guess your mental health and predict what you’ll do next.

Proponents of such tools say that they’ll help doctors get to individuals in need faster and prevent tragedies like suicide, which claims the lives of more than 40,000 Americans each year, while others fear that such developments will lead to the nightmarish future of “Minority Report.”

Scientists took a major step forward in predictive technology this week with the development of a system of blood tests and an app that they say can predict with more than 90 percent accuracy whether someone will start thinking about suicide or attempt it.

In a study published Tuesday, researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine presented details of an app that measures mood and anxiety and that asks people a series of questions about life issues, things like: How high is your physical energy and the amount of moving about that you feel like doing right now? How good to you feel about yourself and your accomplishments right now? How uncertain about things do you feel right now?

They purposely avoided asking any questions about suicide directly. Writing in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, the researchers said that “predicting suicidal behavior in individuals is one of the hard problems in psychiatry, and in society at large.”

“One cannot always ask individuals if they are suicidal, as desire not to be stopped or future impulsive changes of mind may make their self-report of feelings, thoughts and plans to be unreliable,” Alexander B. Niculescu III, a professor of psychiatry and medical neuroscience at Indiana University, and his co-authors wrote.

The researchers separately studied a group of 217 males who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, schizophrenia and other psychiatric issues. About 20 percent went from no suicidal thoughts to a high level of suicidal thoughts while they were being seen at a clinic at the university.

By analyzing their blood samples, the researchers were able to identify RNA biomarkers that appeared to predict suicidal thinking.

They wrote that it’s unclear how well the biomarkers would work in the larger population due to the fact that the study was limited to high-risk males with psychiatric diagnoses, but that the app is ready to be deployed and tested on a wider group in real-world settings such as emergency rooms.

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What If Erasing Drug-Related Memories Was All It Took To Treat Addiction?

Imagine being able to have your mind wiped clean of your negative memories, offering you a fresh start. While it may not be that easy for everyone, researchers are now working on erasing drug-related memories in former addicts to prevent them from relapsing. Their study, published in the journal Molecular Psychology, may just give recovering addicts a true chance at a drug-free life.

For most addicts, the biggest problem they face when trying to live a sober life is the danger of triggers. Memories attached to certain objects, or events, will often make addicts feel the need to use their drug of choice, even after long periods of undergoing rehabilitation therapy. By erasing the memories attached to these triggers, researchers at The Scripps Research Institute feel they can destroy any temptation a drug may have on a previous addict. But how are they doing it? It all boils down to finding and blocking the right pathway in the brain, subsequently vanquishing the memory.

“We now have a viable target and by blocking the target, we can disrupt, and potentially erase, drug memories, leaving other memories intact,” TSRI Associate Professor Courtney Miller said in a recent press release. “The hope is that, when combined with traditional rehabilitation and abstinence therapies, we can reduce or eliminate relapse for meth users after a single treatment by taking away the power of an individual’s triggers.”

To fully figure out how to target drug-related memories without erasing others, the team called on prior research conducted in 2013. From this previous study, Miller told Medical Daily they learned that the protein actin could be a possible solution to this issue. When a memory is created, actin molecules are believed to combine, creating a long strand of protein pieces that contribute to the storage of a memory. Researchers believe that by stopping actin from combining, known as polymerization, they can destroy the memory altogether. However, early efforts to do this proved to be complicated, as actin is also located in other places of the body, like the spine, and thus, a pill targeting actin could prove fatal.

Going back to the drawing board this time around, researchers turned their attention to nonmuscle myosin II (NMII), a component in the brain known to drive actin polymerization. They decided to “go upstream of actin one step,” by instead targeting NMII through injecting a compound known as blebbistatin. They hoped this compound would stop the process from happening altogether, and tested it by injecting it into animal models along with methamphetamine. They found that with only one injection of this compound, long-term, drug-related memories were completely blocked. What’s more, these animals did not relapse for at least a month after receiving the injection.

The team was enthusiastic about its results, finding that this new pathway helps to erase triggers that often lead to relapses. Even more promising is that the injection of blebbistatin can be administered to any part of the body, whereas previous compounds targeting actin had to be injected into the brain.

Because their treatment did not impact the storage of other, vital memories, the researchers are hopeful that blebbistatin will soon be used to help treat methamphetamine addictions beyond rehabilitation therapy. “We’re very excited about the potential of actually helping people,” Miller said. “Right now we’re applying for grants and speaking with potential investors in order to take blebbistatin and make it safe for use in people. We’ve got all of the expertise at Scripps to do that, we just need the funds.”

Source: Young E, Miller C, Blouin A, et al. Nonmuscle myosin IIB as a therapeutic target for the prevention of relapse to methamphetamine use. Molecular Psychiatry. 2015.