Can nasal spray help prevent military suicides?
The U.S. military reported its highest rate of suicide in July.
August 20th, 2012
10:22 AM ET

Can nasal spray help prevent military suicides?

Could the solution to increasing suicide and depression rates among members of the U.S. military lie in a nasal spray? The Army hopes so.

In the midst of a crisis that saw its highest rate of suicide in July, the Army has greenlighted a grant for Dr. Michael Kubek, an Indiana University of Medicine professor, to dig deeper into whether a nasal spray could be a safe and effective way to administer a specific antidepressive neurochemical to the brain and help calm suicidal thoughts.

The Army counted 38 confirmed or suspected suicides in July, a tally that took into account both active- and non-active-duty members of the Army National Guard or Reserve. Three of those active-duty soldiers were deployed at the time of their deaths. Before July, the highest monthly level suicide rate for soldiers was 33 in June 2010 and July 2011, according to statistics released by the Army.

Kubek helped discover thyrotropin-releasing hormone, or TRH, which is known to have antisuicidal and antidepression effects. The problem is that the naturally occurring chemical cannot easily cross the “blood-brain barrier.” The barrier is meant to protect the nervous system by keeping out any substances in the blood that could injure the brain, including hormones and neurotransmitters. But it also makes it extremely difficult to get TRH to the brain, rendering normal methods of delivering the chemical, through pills or injection, largely unhelpful.

The military is hoping Kubek, an associate professor of anatomy and cell biology and of neurobiology, can use a three-year grant to work with other researchers to use a nasal spray to get TRH safely into the brain and calm soldiers' thoughts.

Kubek's research was spotted by Navy physician Capt. Neal Naito several years ago, according to a news release from Indiana University. Naito, who had been the director of public health for the Navy but is now retired, reached out to Kubek to see whether his research might be applied to active military members and veterans.

The Army has confirmed 120 suicides for both active- and non-active-duty soldiers in 2012, with 67 other deaths suspected as suicides but still under investigation. Twenty-five of those were attributed to soldiers who did not have any previous deployments. The Army reported 242 suicides in 2009, 305 in 2010 and 283 in 2011.

“These deaths are troubling and tragic,” Kubek said in a statement. “Today’s commonly used anti-depressants can take weeks to have an effect and carry a black box warning label for suicidal ideation in young adults. That is why we hope to develop a quick-acting, easy-to-use, non-invasive system that delivers a compound that’s been shown to reduce suicidal thoughts.”

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told a congressional committee last month that the U.S. military was facing an "epidemic" of suicides and was in need of improvements in mental health services for active-duty and returning troops.

The military spends about $2 billion a year on mental health for its members. But many who study and report on military suicides say the stigma attached to depression as well as the red tape involved in implementing a program make it difficult to attack the problem in the aggressive way that is needed.

Time magazine Deputy Washington Bureau Chief Mark Thompson says a former high-ranking Army officer told him, “there are promising techniques that the military could deploy against suicide, but they involve an initial two-hour screening, a sit-down, a one-on-one with a psychiatrist that this nation is just not willing to pay for.”

Kubek's techniques could be promising. It will take a few years to know, but it's research the Army knows is important.

"Suicide is the toughest enemy I have faced in my 37 years in the Army. And it's an enemy that's killing not just Soldiers, but tens of thousands of Americans every year," Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, vice chief of staff of the Army, said in a written statement after the July release of suicide statistics. "That said, I do believe suicide is preventable. To combat it effectively will require sophisticated solutions aimed at helping individuals to build resiliency and strengthen their life coping skills."

Kubek will work with pharmacology professor Abraham Domb from Hebrew University in Jerusalem to figure out how to deliver the drug effectively. That process, according to Indiana University’s School of Medicine, should take about a year. Kubek would then work with researchers at Purdue University on clinical trials in the second and third years of the grant.

soundoff (288 Responses)
  1. Sicko

    Well, if they stop allowing themselves to be brainwashed into running head first in fake wars then they would be ok

    August 21, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
  2. wisdom4u2

    Please, don't go using our Soldiers as guinea pigs!! I recall using our Black Soldiers as guinea pigs back in the 1930s-40s for that damn 'Tuskegee syphilis study', so leave the Soldiers alone. Here's a thought, start treating our Soldiers and their families better and maybe they'll have HOPE....for a better future.

    August 21, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Drieling

    Funny, soldiers on drugs as a solution. How civilized!

    August 22, 2012 at 12:34 am | Report abuse |
  4. Canna Get a He77 Yeah

    They'll spend all of this money researching new drugs and ways to administer them while totally neglecting to look at cannabis as a viable medicine. You don't have to smoke it. It can be administered in many different ways that are less harmful than smoking. It's not the end all drug, but it has few negative health effects (other than smoking) and it doesn't damage your body like processed medicine can. Really now, why would anyone not want to at least explore a medicine with so few negative side effects??? I just don't understand.

    August 22, 2012 at 9:43 am | Report abuse |
    • ~~~

      check the tar on your pipe...that would be in your lungs. lungs are often your weakest link. protect that. i don't see that getting people where they need to be.

      August 22, 2012 at 9:12 pm | Report abuse |
  5. ~~~

    Maybe their food is high in corn and corn derivatives and oxalates and people are dehydrated so their histamines are high and they can't breathe well? oxalates robbing their calcium, potassium, and magnesium? and corn and corn derivatives making it hard to breathe...tired...lethargic. depressed so they think they need coffee (high oxalates). viscious circle of bad food.

    August 22, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • ~~~

      corn and corn derivatives being a problem on the allergy route. then chicken / eggs. chocolate. high oxalates combines with allergies, and being dehydrated (don't add high fructose corn syrup to drinks).

      August 22, 2012 at 9:14 pm | Report abuse |
  6. ~~~

    Are they on prozac? that has huge problems also.

    gaia-health. com/gaia-blog/2012-07-14/michael-moore-says-that-big-pharmas-drugs-caused-the-columbine-killings-video/

    August 22, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Helen

    I have read and reread that first statement. Am I missing something? Is it not worded wrong? I quote: "Could the solution to increasing suicide and depression rates among members of the U.S. military lie in a nasal spray? The Army hopes so."

    August 22, 2012 at 11:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eileen

      Helen I had the same thought. Unfortunate choice of wording.

      August 23, 2012 at 9:31 am | Report abuse |
  8. Milligan

    Could commenters stress that we dont see solution and in the first sentence?

    August 24, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Milligan

    Once I knew this guy who wouldnt tell me about his medals. He would say nothing more than he was doing his job, I did my job, I did my job, I did my job....

    August 24, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
  10. lambda

    Let them live.

    August 25, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Report abuse |
  11. mhunter627

    What really amazes me is that no one mentions that killing is wrong. Of course, it is such a hideous thing that one would become suicidal. Shortcutting this natural reaction is killing our humanity. Mankind must wake up and realize that love, not war is the answer. People must learn to think for themselves instead of blindly following the dictates of elected politicians.

    October 23, 2012 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
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