University of Notre Dame psychologists Theodore Beauchaine and Kristin Valentino received the National Institutes of Health’s Transformative Research Award for researching two promising new interventions to reduce the risk of suicide in vulnerable youth.
Part of the NIH’s high-risk, high-reward research program, the award supports individuals or teams proposing transformative projects that are untested in nature, but have the potential to create major scientific breakthroughs by challenging questions existing paradigms.
“We are thrilled to receive the Transformative Research Award,” said Beauchaine, William K. Warren Foundation professor of psychology and director of primary prevention at the Notre Dame Suicide Prevention Initiative. “The traditional pipeline for new interventions lasts 12 years at best. This is an incredible opportunity to accelerate these methods and technologies to reach many more adolescents at a much lower cost – and hopefully save lives.
The $4 million grant will support a five-year project, “Leveraging Noninvasive Transcutaneous Vagus Nerve Stimulation and Smart Phone Technology to Reduce Suicidal Behaviors and Suicide in Highly Vulnerable Adolescents,” led by Beauchaine and Valentino, the William J. Shaw Center for Children and Families Professor of Psychology, as well as Arielle Sheftall of the University of Rochester. Brooke Ammerman and Ross Jacobucci, both assistant professors of psychology at Notre Dame, are also major contributors.
Over the past two decades, suicide rates have increased by nearly 35% in the United States, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated mental health issues. Although these rising trends affect almost all demographic groups, adolescents in rural and urban settings are particularly vulnerable and harder to reach with traditional therapies.
“Most current primary prevention programs are intensive, expensive, and delivered by highly trained mental health providers who are in short supply,” Beauchaine said. “Traditional face-to-face therapy is also unavailable to many people living in underserved communities and is not popular with teens, who much prefer digital delivery on their devices.”
With this in mind, the team seeks to “meet adolescents where they are” in this research, with two low-cost, non-invasive and scalable interventions: transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation to target emotional dysregulation and an application to peer support smartphone to fight social isolation. .
Beauchaine and Valentino plan to enroll more than 200 adolescents (ages 13-17) from South Bend and surrounding communities who will then be randomly assigned to one of four groups – using one of two new interventions, a combination of the two, or access to traditional treatment.
Teens receiving vagus nerve stimulation will use a handheld/pocket device for 30 minutes each day that targets the nerve with a mild electrical current through a special earpiece. Powered by a smartphone app, the device called Xen plays the music of their choice at the same time.
Vagus nerve stimulation has been shown to be effective in treating depression and improving emotion regulation in numerous studies, Beauchaine noted. And in a recent study of adults, treatment was associated with lower suicide rates five years later.
The second intervention involves a custom smartphone app that Ammerman is working to develop with support from Notre Dame College of Engineering. The app will allow participants who face similar challenges to connect via text and phone to reduce social isolation.
“That’s part of the high-risk, high-reward aspect of this research,” Beauchaine said. “Traditionally, professionals have tried to avoid connecting people in difficulty for fear of contagion. But it appears from the scientific literature that the risk of contagion is overestimated. We will be in daily contact with all our participants by telephone and will also monitor this closely. »
Often, traditional treatment for suicidal behavior is also not started until there is significant distress. By identifying children and teens who are at high risk for self-harm and suicide attempts and addressing these risk factors before they become overwhelming, Beauchaine hopes to significantly reduce suicidal behavior later on.
Beauchaine joined the Notre Dame faculty last year and said the College of Arts and Letters and the Department of Psychology have offered tremendous support for his research, which he considers integral to the mission of the college. ‘University.
“It is completely in line with the Catholic mission of Notre-Dame to engage in raising awareness among families, people in distress, poor communities and to improve the quality of life of these communities,” he said. he declares. “As many people have been affected by suicide as by cancer, according to national data. When you see the extent of the pain people are feeling — including family members and other survivors — it’s hard not to want to do something about it.