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UW–Madison to launch novel research on suicide prevention and well-being

October 5, 2023 By Heather Harris

A multi-disciplinary team of University of Wisconsin–Madison researchers, led by the Center for Healthy Minds and the Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness, is set to begin a highly novel, multi-phase study exploring whether a combination of targeted brain stimulation and meditation can improve well-being and help prevent deaths by suicide.

Innovative, science-backed strategies to improve well-being and prevent suicide are urgently needed. According to the World Health Organization, more than 700,000 people die by suicide every year globally, with a high percentage of deaths among teens and young adults. The International Association for Suicide Prevention reports that people suffering from depression are 20 times more likely to die by suicide than those without the disorder. The U.S. Surgeon General has flagged “significant increases” in recent years of certain mental health disorders among youth, including depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.

Researchers have previously explored relationships between cognitive inflexibility, or difficulty adapting to changes, inability to regulate emotions and greater vulnerability for suicidal thoughts and attempts. In this new study, UW–Madison researchers will investigate how complementary neuroscience and meditation-based interventions could target and repair the areas of the brain that control emotional regulation and cognitive flexibility — the ability to multitask and adapt.

Supported by a new 30-month contract worth up to $14 million from the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the team will initially focus on assessing and testing the interventions with low-risk, healthy study participants.

First, participants will be assessed on well-being, suicidality and neurological measures, using sophisticated neuroimaging tools. Next, participants will undergo a 4-week test period of hybrid interventions, including the Healthy Minds Program, an app-based meditation training program for well-being developed by a non-profit affiliated with CHM. This meditation program will be combined with a highly novel, non-invasive, targeted brain stimulation during sleep to increase neuroplasticity and facilitate meditation-based skill learning.

This groundbreaking targeted brain stimulation (called “transcranial electrical stimulation with temporal interference”), directs targeted frequencies from non-invasive sensors placed on the head during sleep, to achieve direct stimulation of specific areas of the brain. Participants are expected to be unaware of the stimulation that occurs as they sleep.

A photo portrait of Richard Davidson.

Richard Davidson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds, is a co-investigator of the study.

“This approach of combining meditation during wakefulness with neurostimulation during sleep has never been tried before. But there are strong reasons to expect that they will synergistically interact, and we expect the combined impact will be greater than the sum of its parts,” says Dr. Richard Davidson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds and co-investigator of the study.

Following each phase of interventions, participants will be reassessed for well-being and suicidality. Should the initial phase yield positive results, the team plans to expand the hybrid interventions to include more refined brain stimulation as well as physical exercise. This follow-up phase would include both low-risk healthy participants and participants who are more at risk. Future research would aim to involve participants at high risk for suicidality.

Ultimately, the team envisions a future where personalized interventions enable individuals to flourish even amidst challenging circumstances.

“We are thrilled to receive support for this highly innovative, potentially transformational research. This kind of work has never been done before and the world really needs it,” says Davidson.

This project is sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. This press release is provided by the Center for Healthy Minds and does not necessarily reflect the position or the policy of the U.S. government.