Genetic biomarkers for suicide

22 August 2013

Genetics appears to play a significant role in some major psychiatric disorders (see previous news), but research that suggests any potential move towards predictive testing, as opposed to improved understanding and the development of new treatments, is typically controversial.
 
However, with more than a million deaths due to suicide in the world every year, it is a serious issue, and certain sub-populations (especially among those with certain forms of psychiatric disease) are at greatly increased risk. Improved capacity to detect suicidal feelings could theoretically help to improve care for this group.
 
New gene expression research among small numbers of men with bipolar disorder suggests that expression of selected genetic biomarkers may change as suicidal feelings and intentions develop. Examination of these biomarkers among another group of men who had recently killed themselves suggested that six of these biomarkers showed further (progressive) changes in expression levels.
 
The gene with the strongest association with suicide, SAT1, was tested in two further groups of bipolar and psychosis patients and levels were shown to correlate with previous and future hospitalisations due to suicidality, particularly in the bipolar patients.
 
The researchers suggest that their findings could be integrated with other medical and social risk factors to improve prediction of suicide risk, but other experts noted the very small research sample sizes, which could mean that the results are not reproducible in larger samples, let alone useful; larger, more robust studies would be needed to prove the association.

However, the researchers also pointed out that their findings could contribute to improved understanding of suicide, since the biomarkers they identified could be involved in biological mechanisms of stress, inflammation, and apoptosis (programmed cell death). 

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