Experts say suicide is one of the most preventable causes of mortality in the United States, but it has been almost impossible to accurately predict who is at risk.
Now, researchers feel they have isolated a gene that could be responsible for dangerous suicidal thoughts–and a simple blood test may one day be able to identify someone who is likely to take their own life.
In a study published this month in the American Journal of Psychiatry, John Hopkins researchers have discovered a chemical alteration to the gene SKA2 changes how the brain handles stress hormones.
This alteration to the gene could cause a normally mild reaction to stress into an extreme, suicidal reaction.
“Suicide is a major preventable public health problem, but we have been stymied in our prevention efforts because we have no consistent way to predict those who are at increased risk of killing themselves, said study leader Zachary Kaminsky, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in a press release. With a test like ours, we may be able to stem suicide rates by identifying those people and intervening early enough to head off a catastrophe.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, more than 39,000 suicide deaths were reported in 2011, the year the most current data is available. Suicide is among the top ten leading causes of death for Americans, with someone dying from suicide approximately every 13 minutes.
Though suicide rates have risen and fallen over the past decade, younger individuals consistently have lower suicide rates compared to people over the age of 45.
Men also have consistently had higher suicide rats compared to women–almost 4 times as much.
“We have found a gene that we think could be really important for consistently identifying a range of behaviors from suicidal thoughts to attempts to completions, Kaminsky said. We need to study this in a larger sample but we believe that we might be able to monitor the blood to identify those at risk of suicide.
The SKA2 gene is expressed in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is involved in inhibiting negative thoughts and controlling impulsive behavior. SKA2 accompanies stress hormone receptors into cells so they can do their job. Without enough SKA2, or it is altered in some way (such as the chemical alteration researchers found), the stress hormone receptor is unable to suppress the release of the stress hormone cortisol throughout the brain, resulting in an overabundance.
Previous research has shown that such cortisol release is abnormal in people who attempt or die by suicide.
Thus far, laboratory trials have proven to be up to 96 percent accurate for predicting suicide attempts, and Kaminsky and his team hope that the discovery will soon have a benefit for not just the public, but the military as well. Soldiers returning from service could be tested for the genetic alteration in addition to post-traumatic stress disorder and closely monitored if the blood work shows chemical changes to SKA2.