November 04, 2019

JKBF bestows first Biological Research Award

At the 2019 International Summit on Suicide Research in Miami, FL, the International Academy of Suicide Research (IASR) and JKBF presented the first James Kirk Bernard Foundation Award for Excellence in the Biological Exploration of Suicide to Arthur Ryan, Ph.D. Selected by an IASR committee as a finalist in a pool of early career researchers presenting innovative biological studies, Dr. Ryan was chosen by JKBF for his work investigating fatty acid profiles associated with suicide. Dr. Ryan’s research was done in collaboration with co-authors and mentors from several leading research institutions, including the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the Washington D.C. VA hospital.

Dr. Ryan is an advanced postdoctoral research fellow studying the biology of suicidal behavior in U.S. Veterans at the Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Center, a research institute located within the Baltimore VA hospital. He received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Emory University, where he studied the development of psychotic disorders. Dr. Ryan’s goal is to become a career VA research scientist developing biological treatments to prevent suicide in Veterans and other individuals living with mental illness.

JKBF’s interest in the exploration of biological factors involved in suicide plays out in Dr. Ryan’s research, which suggests that fatty acid profiles may be associated with suicide. His work is described in our first From the Scientist piece below. We celebrate the cross-institutional collaborations involved in this work, as we believe that a gathering of various perspectives and expertise promotes discovery. JKBF is pleased that our first award recipient exhibits a dedication to researching the biological factors related to suicide, and we wish Dr. Ryan success and productivity in his career ahead.

JKBF appreciates the collaboration with IASR and the efforts of the selection committee members, Gil Zalsman, Maria Oquendo, and Cornelis van Heeringen, in making this award possible. Dr. Ryan received an honorarium as well as an award featuring a piece of Jamie’s art, and his research is being submitted for publication in a research journal.

From the Scientist: 

Summary of Presentation “Latent Class Profiles of Serum Fatty Acids are Associated with Risk of Suicide in Military Personnel.”

By Arthur Ryan, Ph.D.

I was interested in how levels of fatty acids in a person’s blood might be associated with risk for suicide, the leading cause of death among active duty members of the U.S. military.1Previous research has shown that different types of fatty acids can have various effects on a person’s health.  For example, increased levels of omega-3 fatty acids appear to help reduce the risk of stroke.2I wanted to know whether considering levels of several fatty acids at once might help illuminate biological changes that predispose individuals towards suicide. My co-authors and I analyzed data derived from blood samples previously collected from 800 military service members who eventually died of suicide and 800 living military service members. I used a statistical technique that allowed me to identify groups of individuals who have similar “profiles” of fatty acids; by that I mean they had similar patterns of elevations and deficits of multiple individual fatty acids. I then compared these fatty acid groups, known technically as “latent classes,” with one another.

My statistical analysis showed that individuals who later died by suicide were more likely to have certain profiles of fatty acids; for example, they were more likely to have profiles with high levels of certain saturated fatty acids and low levels of certain omega-3 fatty acids. Individuals with the suicide-associated fatty acid profiles were also more likely to have been diagnosed with depression and alcohol use disorder, conditions associated with increased risk for suicide. Fatty acids are essential to many biological systems related to suicide, from the creation and maintenance of neurons to the proper functioning of the immune system.  My co-authors and I speculate that the suicide-associated fatty acid profiles could contribute to changes in the brain, such as increased inflammation, which might further predispose a vulnerable individual towards suicidal behavior.

Healthy Fatty Acid Foods (Photo: Pexels.com)

Overall, our research suggests that the levels of fatty acids in a person’s blood might be associated with increased or decreased risk for suicide. It’s important that my co-authors and I note the possibility that the association between fatty acids and suicide is because of some unmeasured third variable related to both fatty acids and suicide; for example, people at risk for suicide might stop eating healthy foods, which would also change their fatty acid levels. However, it is also possible that there is a direct causal connection between fatty acid profiles and suicide. 

Measuring fatty acid profiles might never be a way to reliably tell that an individual person is at imminent risk for suicide, but understanding their possible biological connection with suicidal behavior might lead to interventions that help to foster population-level health and resilience, similar to the way that the American Heart Association recommends restricting the amount of saturated fatty acids in your diet as one way to encourage heart health.3This research identifying suicide-associated profiles of fatty acids represents one piece in a much larger effort in finding biological factors that might eventually be used to prevent suffering and deaths by suicide.

  1. Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center. Surveillance snapshot: Manner and cause of death, active component, US Armed Forces, 1998-2013. MSMR21, 21 (2014).
  2. Yang, B. et al.Circulating long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid and incidence of stroke: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Oncotarget8, 83781–83791 (2017).
  3. American Heart Association. Saturated Fat. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/saturated-fats.

Dr. Ryan’s team and their institutional affiliations:

Arthur Thomas Ryan, PhD 1,2; Teodor T. Postolache, MD 1,2,3; Daniel Dennis Taub, PhD 4; Holly C. Wilcox, PhD 5,6; Marjan Ghahramanlou-Holloway, PhD 7; John C. Umhau, MD 8,9; Patricia A. Deuster, PhD 10

1- Veterans Affairs VISN 5 Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Center (MIRECC), Baltimore, MD, USA

2- Department of Psychiatry, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, USA

3- Rocky Mountain MIRECC for Suicide Prevention, Aurora, CO

4- Washington DC VA Medical Center, Washington, DC, USA

5- Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, MD, USA

6- Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, USA

7- Department of Medical and Clinical Psychology, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, MD, USA

8- Office of New Drugs, Division of Psychiatry Products Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, Food and Drug Administration, Silver Spring, MD, USA

9- Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, Fort Belvoir, MD, USA

10- Consortium for Health and Military Performance, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, MD, USA