As I sit down to write this blog, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a widespread impact, and we’re all trying to figure out our “new normal.” For some, figuring out the new normal has been especially difficult, and that’s something for all of us to consider during September, which is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. It’s such an important time to share what we know about suicide prevention and consider how we can further this knowledge to those in need.
At NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), we’ve been asking ourselves: What have we learned about suicide risk and prevention during the pandemic? And how should our research evolve to reflect a rapidly changing world?
Over the last few years, people have been concerned about the pandemic’s impact on suicide rates. So far, data suggest that the overall suicide rate in the U.S. has remained steady. But there is concerning evidence that the pandemic has disproportionately affected suicide risk in historically underserved communities.
For example, data suggest that people in minority racial and ethnic groups experienced greater increases in suicidal thoughts during the pandemic . Additional data indicate that suicide rates may be rising among some young adult racial and ethnic minority groups .
Structural racism and other social and environmental factors are major drivers of mental health disparities, and NIMH continues to invest in research to understand how these social determinants of health influence suicide risk. This research includes investigations into the effects of long-term and daily discrimination.
To mitigate these effects, it is critical that we identify specific underlying mechanisms so that we can develop targeted interventions. To this end, NIMH is supporting research in underserved communities to identify suicide risk and the protective factors and effective strategies for reducing this risk (e.g., RFA-MH-22-140, RFA-MH-21-188, RFA-MH-21-187). There are important lessons to be learned that we can’t afford to miss.
Building Solid Foundations
The pandemic also underscored the urgent need to support youth mental health. Indeed, in December 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued the Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health, calling attention to increasing rates of depression and suicidal behaviors among young people. Crucially, the advisory highlighted the need to “recognize that mental health is an essential part of overall health.”
At NIMH, we know that establishing a foundation for good mental health early on can support a person’s overall health and well-being over a lifetime. In light of this, we are investing in research to identify effective prevention efforts that can help set kids on positive mental health trajectories early in life.
Additionally, by re-analyzing research investments already made, we are looking to see whether these early prevention efforts have meaningful impacts on later suicide risk and mental health outcomes. These findings may help to improve a range of systems—such as schools, social services, and health care—to better support kids’ mental health needs.
Improving and Expanding Access
The pandemic has also shown us that telehealth can be an effective means of delivering and increasing access to mental health care. The NIMH has supported research examining telehealth as a tool for improving suicide prevention services, including the use of digital tools that can help extend provider reach and support individuals at risk for suicide.
At the same time, NIMH is investing in work to understand the most effective ways to help providers use evidence-based approaches to prevent suicide. This research helps inform federal partners and others about the best ways to support policies and practices that help prevent suicide deaths.
In July, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) launched the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, a three-digit suicide prevention and mental health crisis number. This service builds on the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, allowing anyone to call or text 988 to connect with trained counselors and mental health services. Research supported by NIMH helped build the case for such lifelines, and now we’re calling for research aimed at identifying the best ways to help people use this evolving crisis support system.
With these and many other efforts, we are hopeful that people who are at risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors will be able to access the evidence-based support and services they need. This National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I’d like to issue a call to action: Help raise awareness by sharing resources on how to recognize the warning signs for suicide and how to get help. By working together, we can prevent suicide and save lives.
 Racial and ethnic disparities in the prevalence of stress and worry, mental health conditions, and increased substance use among adults during the COVID-19 pandemic – United States, April and May 2020. McKnight-Eily LR, Okoro CA, Strine TW, Verlenden J, Hollis ND, Njai R, Mitchell EW, Board A, Puddy R, Thomas C. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2021 Feb 5;70(5):162-166.
 One Year In: COVID-19 and Mental Health. National Institute of Mental Health Director’s Message. April 9, 2021.
988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD)
Help for Mental Illnesses (National Institute of Mental Health/NIH)
Suicide Prevention (NIMH)
Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 16th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
For many people struggling with depression, antidepressants and talk therapy can help to provide relief. But for some, the treatments don’t help nearly enough. I’m happy to share some early groundbreaking research in alleviating treatment-resistant depression in a whole new way: implanting a pacemaker-like device capable of delivering therapeutic electrical impulses deep into the brain, aiming for the spot where they can reset the depression circuit.
What’s so groundbreaking about the latest approach—so far, performed in just one patient—is that the electrodes didn’t simply deliver constant electrical stimulation. The system could recognize the specific pattern of brain activity associated with the patient’s depressive symptoms and deliver electrical impulses to the brain circuit where it could provide the most relief.
While much more study is needed, this precision approach to deep brain stimulation (DBS) therapy offered immediate improvement to the patient, a 36-year-old woman who’d suffered from treatment-resistant major depressive disorder since childhood. Her improvement has lasted now for more than a year.
This precision approach to DBS has its origins in clinical research supported through NIH’s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative. A team, led by Edward Chang, a neurosurgeon at the University of California San Francisco’s (UCSF) Epilepsy Center, discovered while performing DBS that the low mood in some patients with epilepsy before surgery was associated with stronger activity in a “subnetwork” deep within the brain’s neural circuitry. The subnetwork involved crosstalk between the brain’s amygdala, which mediates fear and other emotions, and the hippocampus, which aids in memory.
Researchers led by Andrew Krystal, UCSF, Weill Institute for Neurosciences, attempted in the latest work to translate this valuable lead into improved care for depression. Their results were published recently in the journal Nature Medicine .
Krystal and colleagues, including Chang and Katherine Scangos, who is the first author of the new study, began by mapping patterns of brain activity in the patient that was associated with the onset of her low moods. They then customized an FDA-approved DBS device to respond only when it recognized those specific patterns. Called NeuroPace® RNS®, the device includes a small neurostimulator and measures about 6 by 3 centimeters, allowing it to be fully implanted inside a person’s skull. There, it continuously monitors brain activity and can deliver electrical stimulation via two leads, as shown in the image above .
Researchers found they could detect and predict high symptom severity best in the amygdala, as previously reported. The next question was where the electrical stimulation would best relieve those troubling brain patterns and associated symptoms. They discovered that stimulation in the brain’s ventral capsule/ventral striatum, part of the brain’s circuitry for decision-making and reward-related behavior, led to the most consistent and sustained improvements. Based on these findings, the team devised an on-demand and immediate DBS therapy that was unique to the patient’s condition.
It will be important to learn whether this precision approach to DBS is broadly effective for managing treatment-resistant depression and perhaps other psychiatric conditions. It will take much more study and time before such an approach to treating depression can become more widely available. Also, it is not yet clear just how much it would cost. But these remarkable new findings certainly point the way toward a promising new approach that will hopefully one day bring another treatment option for those in need of relief from severe depression.
 Closed-loop neuromodulation in an individual with treatment-resistant depression. Scangos KW, Khambhati AN, Daly PM, Makhoul GS, Sugrue LP, Zamanian H, Liu TX, Rao VR, Sellers KK, Dawes HE, Starr PA, Krystal AD, Chang EF. Nat Med. 2021 Oct;27(10):1696-1700
 The NeuroPace® RNS® System for responsive neurostimulation, NIH BRAIN Initiative.
Depression (National Institute of Mental Health/NIH)
Deep Brain Stimulation for Parkinson’s Disease and other Movement Disorders (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)
Andrew Krystal (University of California San Francisco)
Katherine Scangos (UCSF)
Edward Chang (UCSF)
NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
One of life’s greatest mysteries is the brain’s ability to encode something as complex as human behavior. In an effort to begin to unravel this mystery, neuroscientists often zoom in to record the activities of individual neurons. Sometimes they expand their view to look at a specific region of the brain. But if they zoom out farther, neuroscientists can observe many thousands of neurons across the entire brain firing at once to produce electrical oscillations that somehow translate into behaviors as distinct as a smile and a frown. The complexity is truly daunting.
Rainbo Hultman, University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, Iowa City, realized years ago that by zooming out and finding a way to map all those emergent signals, she could help to change the study of brain function fundamentally. She also realized doing so offered her an opportunity to chip away at cracking the complicated code of the electrical oscillations that translate into such complex behaviors. To pursue her work in this emerging area of “electrical connectomics,” Hultman recently received a 2020 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to study the most common human neurological disorder: migraine headaches.
A few years ago, Hultman made some impressive progress in electrical connectomics as a post-doctoral researcher in the lab of Kafui Dzirasa at Duke University, Durham, NC. Hultman and her colleagues refined a way to use electrodes to collect electrical field potentials across an unprecedented seven separate mouse brain regions at once. Using machine learning to help make sense of all the data, they uncovered a dynamic, yet reproducible, electrical brain network encoding depression .
What’s more, they found that the specific features of this brain-wide network could predict which mice subjected to chronic stress would develop signs of major depressive disorder. As Hultman noted, when measured and mapped in this way, the broad patterns of electrical brain activity, or “Electome factors,” could indicate which mice were vulnerable to stress and which were more resilient.
Moving on to her latest area of research, Hultman is especially intrigued by the fact that people who endure regular migraine attacks often pass through a characteristic sequence of symptoms. These symptoms can include a painful headache on one side of the head; visual disturbances; sensitivity to light, odors, or sound; mood changes; nausea; trouble speaking; and sometimes even paralysis. By studying the broad electrical patterns and networks associated with migraine in mice—simultaneously capturing electrical recordings from 14 brain regions on a millisecond timescale—she wants to understand how brain circuits are linked and work together in ways that produce the complex sequences of migraine symptoms.
More broadly, Hultman wants to understand how migraine and many other disorders affecting the brain lead to a state of heightened sensory sensitivity and how that emerges from integrated neural circuits in the brain. In her studies of migraine, the researcher suspects she might observe some of the same patterns seen earlier in depression. In fact, her team is setting up its experiments to ensure it can identify any brain network features that are shared across important disease states.
By the way, I happen to be one of many people who suffer from migraines, although fortunately not very often in my case. The visual aura of flashing jagged images that starts in the center of my visual field and then gradually moves to the periphery over about 20 minutes is pretty dramatic—a free light show! I’ve wondered what the electrical component of that must be like. But, even with treatment, the headache that follows can be pretty intense.
Hultman also has seen in her own life and family how debilitating migraines can be. Her goal isn’t just to map these neural networks, but to use them to identify where to target future therapeutics. Ultimately, she hopes her work will pave the way for more precise approaches for treating migraine and other brain disorders that are based on the emergent electrical characteristics of each individual’s brain activity. It’s a fascinating proposition, and I certainly look forward to where this research leads and what it may reveal about the fundamentals of how our brains encode complex behaviors and emotions.
 Brain-wide electrical spatiotemporal dynamics encode depression vulnerability. Hultman R, Ulrich K, Sachs BD, Blount C, Carlson DE, Ndubuizu N, Bagot RC, Parise EM, Vu MT, Gallagher NM, Wang J, Silva AJ, Deisseroth K, Mague SD, Caron MG, Nestler EJ, Carin L, Dzirasa K. Cell. 2018 Mar 22;173(1):166-180.e14.
Migraine Information Page (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)
Laboratory for Brain-Network Based Molecular Medicine (University of Iowa, Iowa City)
Hultman Project Information (NIH RePORTER)
NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (Common Fund)
NIH Support: Common Fund; National Institute of Mental Health