Do Genetics Determine Suicide Risk?

Do Genetics Determine Suicide RiskBy Jennifer McGregor

If your parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle committed suicide, does that mean that you’re inclined to do the same? Researchers have gotten closer to determining suicide risk based on genetic factors. This information could ultimately help with suicide prevention efforts.

The Genetic Link to Suicide

Two recent studies have provided us with valuable information on the genetic link to suicide.

  1. The Centre For Addiction and Mental Health Study: This study was recently published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology and addressed the genetic link to suicide. Though the nature of the study was complex, it ultimately found that the gene for brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is linked to suicidal ideations. Researchers conducted their own investigation and included data from previous studies done on the subject. The participants of these studies all experienced mental health issues. Researchers used this method because up to 90% of individuals who commit suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder. The disorders included:
  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Depression
  • Other mood disorders

Researchers concluded that individuals with the methionine (“met”) variation of the BDNF gene expressed more suicidal thoughts and behaviors than those with the valine variant of the gene.

  1. Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Study: This study also addressed the genetic link to suicide and was recently published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. This study ultimately found that low levels of the SKA2 gene or a mutation to the SKA2 gene can lead to an increased risk of suicide. This mutation allowed for higher levels of methylation. When SKA2 functions normally, it regulates impulsive behavior and negative thoughts via suppression of the release of cortisol. When left unregulated, individuals experience excess cortisol, which leads to an increase in the aforementioned thoughts and behaviors.

How These Studies Can Help Prevention

People who test positive for the genetic mutations to the BDNF or SKA2 genes can be helped through:

  • Quicker evaluation and intervention
  • Limited access to weapons
  • Close monitoring both in and out of clinical settings
  • Evaluation of risk before military deployment
  • Development of medication to restore the genes’ proper function

Other Factors to Consider

While genetics do play an important role in evaluating the risk of suicide, it is important to remember that the link between mind and body is not an exact science. Not everyone who tests positive for the genetic mutations may experience suicidal behaviors and, likewise, those who don’t test positively may have these thoughts and inclinations. Sometimes there are multiple co-occurring factors that should be considered as well. If genetic testing is the sole determinative factor for suicide risk, this population of individuals may get overlooked.

Though these genetic factors are an important consideration in the battle to prevent suicide, environmental factors must also be considered, such as:

  • Physical ailments
  • Societal or familial support
  • Substance abuse issues
  • Use of antidepressants
  • Abuse, neglect, or trauma
  • Socioeconomic status.

While genetic studies give us hope for a new platform for suicide prevention, they are not 100% determinative of suicide risk. As such, all factors, including environmental ones, should be taken into consideration during an assessment or evaluation.

Jennifer McGregor has wanted to be a doctor since she was little. Now, as a pre-med student, she’s well on her way to achieving that dream. She helped create with a friend as part of a class project. With it, she hopes to provide access to trustworthy health and medical resources. When Jennifer isn’t working on the site, you can usually find her hitting the books in the campus library or spending some downtime with her dog at the local park.

Image via Pixabay by Peggy_Marco