AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – The National Institutes of Health reports insomnia as a common sleep disorder, affecting up to half of patients with schizophrenia. Insomnia can also increase the risk of suicide in schizophrenic patients.

Doctors at the Medical College of Georgia at AU are investigating ways to lower this risk and improve patients’ quality of life.

Insomnia disorder affects about 10 percent of adults.  

“Insomnia was a risk factor for suicidal thinking, suicidal behavior and suicide death,” said Dr. William Vaughn McCall, Chair of Psychiatry at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University.

During his earlier studies, Dr. McCall says he wanted to see if treating insomnia in people with active suicidal thinking would make a difference.

“It did,” said Dr. McCall. “Treating insomnia appeared to mitigate people’s tendency towards suicidal thinking. And this was the first time that it had been shown.” 

Now, he and Dr. Brian Miller, professor of psychiatry at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, are working to treat this occurrence in patients with schizophrenia- using a drug called clozapine. 

“We use it because it dramatically changes people’s lives when it works,” said Dr. Miller.

“I’ve started patients on clozapine who’ve been able to go back to school and finish degrees. And pursue advanced degrees. And get meaningful employment.” 

Dr. Vaughn notes that a person’s ability to think clearly is noticeably diminished if they don’t get enough sleep.

“The decision they land upon is ‘I might commit suicide’, which is a decision they might not make if they slept better,” said Dr. McCall.

The doctors are also looking at ways to better recognize signs and symptoms of high alertness, which is often linked to insomnia.

Using a device called a pupillometer, they can measure the rate of pupil responses to determine the patient’s level of physiological excitement. 

It has proven to be a helpful instrument in the stages of both diagnosis and treatment.

“We have an additional study with the pupillometer to measure these pupillary responses to light in patients before and after they get treated with clozapine,” said Dr. Miller. 

“We think that the autonomic nervous system will tell us things about the patient that they may not be able to even access themselves,” said Dr. McCall.

Drs. Miller and McCall tell us they remain committed to proving their hypotheses and providing better care for patients in need.