The Voice: Summer 2001
Stockmeier researches neurological triggers to suicide
Sonya Jongsma Knauss
A research team including Craig Stockmeier ('77) is getting attention from the scientific community around the world for its findings in the field of neurochemistry and mental illness as it relates to suicide. Stockmeier, now a professor of psychiatry at the University of Mississippi, decided to focus his research on suicide after an aunt he was close to took her life in the late 1980s.
The results of more than a decade of work by Stockmeier's research team, which consists of his wife, Grazyna Rajkowska, and two others, have been published regularly in leading journals in the field.
Describing the findings as totally new and exciting, Stockmeier explains that in the brains they studied, the cerebral cortex is thinner in some areas by fifteen percent, which he says is a staggering figure, and nerve cell density and size are decreased.
The team uncovered changes in the brain tissue of both a neurochemical and neuroanatomical nature, he says.
In depression, neurons and their helper cells, called glia, undergo changes in shape, size, and density, Stockmeier explains. These anatomic changes in depression are accompanied by chemical changes _ chemical imbalances, if you will - that reflect decreased function of two critical neurotransmitters in the brain, serotonin and norepinephrine.
Stockmeier says the team hopes the findings will help scientists develop new medications to correct the anatomic and chemical abnormalities. Currently one-fourth of people who are depressed don't respond to antidepressant drugs, and one-third of those with schizophrenia do not respond to medication.
Since publishing their findings, Stockmeier and his colleagues have been invited to give many talks and write a lot of review chapters, he says.
Stockmeier started researching how mental illness affects the brain when he was a professor at Case Western Reserve University. While there, he developed a working relationship with the city coroner and, with the permission of next of kin, did brain research on cadavers to study how major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and alcoholism affect peoples' brains.
But in addition to collecting tissue, he and his colleagues were able to do something that was more unusual at that time: interview family members of the deceased.
We were one of the first groups to use rigorous clinical interviews with families, Stockmeier says. That gave us a leg up on other groups just studying 'suicide' and not knowing much about the psychiatric histories of their subjects.
The team collected a wealth of information about each subject, including psychiatric histories, toxicology (measurements of blood and urine levels of prescription and non- prescription drugs), medication history, and neuropathology history. These can all be confounding variables and need to be experimentally controlled, Stockmeier says.
While postmortem studies and animal research are important, Stockmeier has also done neuro-imaging studies using MRI and PET scanning with live patients. This allows the researchers to compare brains of family members who don't have symptoms of depression with brain tissue from those who did.
Since moving to Jackson, Mississippi, two years ago, Stockmeier has maintained his relationship with the coroner's office in Cleveland and continues to study the brain tissue from people who took their lives. He says the most difficult part of the job is making the call to family members to get permission to do research.
Most family members, though it may be painful, are willing to help Stockmeier because they understand his ultimate goal: to find a better medication that will treat the brain abnormalities that contribute to these diseases.
When he talks to them, he asks them questions about the deceased to make sure they meet the criteria for depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or alcoholism. He also reviews medical records, but he has found that many people with these disorders don't seek treatment, and usually family members can provide a better picture of their mental health than medical records.
Stockmeier says one of his goals is to help remove the stigma of mental illness, since many people are still unwilling to acknowledge or talk about depression.
Often families suppress or hide symptoms until it can no longer be denied, he says. Eventually they have to acknowledge it when there is a suicide attempt or obvious bizarre behavior.
And acknowledging a problem is the first step toward getting better, Stockmeier says.
The stigma, rejection, fear, and guilt that often accompanies psychiatric illness and suicidality can be healed by the gracious love of our Savior, just as the illnesses themselves are beginning to yield to appropriate medications and counseling therapy, he says. There is so much work to be done. Thankfully we have finally begun to talk more openly about mental illness and our responsibility as Christians.
Stockmeier, who majored in biology at Dordt, says Professors Mennenga and Vander Zee, who he describes as his mentors, had a big impact on his decision to pursue a career in science.
They introduced me to form and function in God's biological world, and I'm still moved by the beauty of His design at every level, he says.
But, he says, it was more than just two influential faculty members: Dordt educated him as an entire person.
I went to Dordt to have my eyes opened - not just in biology, my major, but in things like literature and history and theology, he says. Dordt gave me not so much specific knowledge but rather the tools to start examining the world around me and my responsibility to God.
Stockmeier continued his studies, doing graduate work at the University of Arizona in Tucson. While there, he became fascinated with the neurosciences and did brain research on rats to see how changes in the pineal gland affect epilepsy. His postdoctorate work at Georgetown University had a pharmacological focus, looking at the effect anti depressant drugs have on the brain. From there he began to focus his work on depression and suicide.
In my work, my desire is to better understand the consequences of our brokenness after the fall, and to work at restoration, Stockmeier says. After spending several years in the relative safety of the lab, where he designed experiments, shook test tubes, and graphed data, Stockmeier decided it was important for him to also interact with the families of suicide victims. Though it has been the most difficult part of his work, it has also been rewarding.
It has been a great privilege and humbling experience to share in the pain and the hope of those touched by mental illness and suicide, he says. That connection to the deepest examples of human pain and suffering, both in the lives of the families as well as their deceased loved ones, is a significant personal motivation to claim this broken part of God's creation and to work toward the healing of body and soul that only Jesus Christ can give.