New UW-Madison study aims to prevent deaths by suicide

New UW-Madison study aims to prevent deaths by suicide
Published: Oct. 13, 2023 at 6:53 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 20, 2023 at 10:07 AM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Researchers with the University of Wisconsin-Madison are launching a new study in hopes of improving people’s well-being and preventing deaths by suicide.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 700,000 people die by suicide every single year globally. The U.S. Surgeon General recently flagged ‘significant increases’ of certain mental health disorders among youth.

The UW-Madison Center for Healthy Minds and Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness are overseeing the multi-phase study that uses a combination of meditation and targeted brain stimulation.

“If we can boost the capacity of the brain to exhibit plasticity and at the same time teach people simple meditation strategies to improve their well-being, it’s kind of like a double-positive whammy,” Director and Founder of Center for Healthy Minds Dr. Richard Davidson said.

Participants will meditate during the day using an app-based training, while brain stimulation is used to nudge different parts of the brain at night.

“Neuro stimulation during sleep is hypothesized to improve the consolidation of the skills that the participants are learning during the day,” Dr. Davidson said. “They’re learning meditation during the day, these are skills of well-being, and we’re attempting to boost the consolidation of these skills by engaging in this neuro stimulation while they’re sleeping.”

The multimillion dollar project is being funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a research agency responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military.

“Four times the number of people, have taken their own lives who were either active duty or veterans then were killed during the entire 20 years of war,” Project Manager Dr. Grek Witkop said. “Roughly we know we lose approximately 20 veterans or active-duty soldiers per day. And so it’s this ongoing tragedy of veteran and active-duty suicide that really motivated this program.”

Dr. Witkop said Wisconsin, along with Columbia and Harvard university’s were chosen to lead their suicide prevention efforts.

“The Wisconsin team was chosen primarily because of this idea around preventing this from occurring, helping people’s brains, the capacity to regulate emotions and come up with different alternatives and prevent this.”

According to Dr. Davidson, the study is in its initial phases, with next steps expected to begin early next year.

“If we can cultivate well-being, if we can improve resilience in large populations of people, we can decrease the likelihood that any individual will succumb to more serious pathology later on,” he said.

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