-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas
WEDNESDAY, July 30, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Clues to whether a
person is at risk for suicide could lie in a simple blood test, a
new study suggests.
Chemical changes to a gene involved in the brain's response to
stress hormones may help spur suicidal thoughts and behaviors, the
study's authors explained. Spotting those changes in a blood sample
might help alert doctors to a patient's risk for suicide, they
"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," study lead researcher Zachary Kaminsky, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in a university news 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," he said.
In the study, which was partially funded by the U.S. National
Institute of Mental Health, the researchers analyzed genetic
mutations in a gene known as SKA2. As the researchers explained,
the SKA2 gene is expressed in a part of the brain that is
responsible for blocking negative thoughts and controlling
impulsive behavior. The gene is also essential for moving stress
hormone receptors that suppress the release of the "stress hormone"
cortisol throughout the brain.
If SKA2 is changed in some way, these stress hormone receptors
are unable to do their job, Kaminsky's team said. Previous studies
have shown that cortisol release is often not working properly in
people who think about or attempt suicide, the researchers
After comparing the brains of patients with mental illness to
the brains of healthy people, researchers found that those who
committed suicide had significantly lower SKA2 levels.
Within this common gene mutation, the study also revealed some
of the patients had a change to the gene that altered the way it
functioned. The change involved adding chemicals, known as methyl
groups, to the gene. Higher levels of this chemical were also found
among the patients who had killed themselves. The researchers
confirmed this finding with two other brain studies.
Three different sets of blood samples were also analyzed from
325 patients involved in the Johns Hopkins Center for Prevention
Research Study. The researchers found similar chemical changes at
SKA2 in people with suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
Based on their findings, the researchers were able to design a
blood test to predict which of the participants were having
suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide with 80 percent certainty.
The test was even more accurate for those with more severe suicidal
thoughts or behaviors. In those cases, the test was able to predict
their risk with 90 percent certainty. For the youngest people, the
blood test identified which participants had ever attempted suicide
with 96 percent accuracy.
Two experts were somewhat optimistic about the findings.
Dr. Alan Manevitz, a clinical psychiatrist at Lenox Hill
Hospital in New York City, called the study "intriguing and
promising" but added that "it is a very preliminary study, based on
a series of small samples, and more study is needed."
"It is hard to believe that something as complex as suicide could be attributed to a single gene as a predictor of risk of suicide attempts," he said. "While promising, any genetic finding requires replication from substantially larger samples of the population to rule out spurious findings."
Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein, president of the Brain & Behavior
Research Foundation in New York City, noted that "more people die
from suicide than from homicide. A test that can better identify
people at risk of committing suicide has tremendous potential.
He believes that, "if this finding is confirmed, it would help
to ensure that people who are at risk get the treatment they
A blood test to predict suicide risk may be particularly
beneficial for use among military service members, Kaminsky's team
noted, with those at greatest risk being closely monitored when
they return home from deployment.
Psychiatric emergency room doctors could also use the test as
part of their assessment of patients' level of suicide risk, the
"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 noted. "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 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides
more information on
risk factors for suicide.
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
Copyright © EBSCO Publishing. All rights reserved.