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Blood Test May Predict Suicide
- Updated: July 31, 2014
In the near future suicide prevention might get a big help in starting to slow the suicide rates, with a simple blood test. A study published by the American Journal of Psychiatry said Wednesday that researchers think they have found a genetic indicator of someone’s ability to handle stress and anxiety. People who are vulnerable to anxiety and stress could be at a higher risk of suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts.
The researchers from John Hopkins looked at a group of chemicals called methyls and how they affect the gene SKA2. This gene modifies how the brain reacts to hormones released under stress. If the gene’s function is impaired by these chemicals it would mean the person couldn’t stop the effects of stress on their brain or body.
The study looked at 150 postmortem brain samples from both healthy people and the mentally ill, some of whom has committed suicide. They discovered that the samples from the subjects that committed suicide had a significantly higher level of the chemicals which has altered the function of the SKA2 gene.
After this analysis the researchers looked at samples of blood from 325 participants with the Johns Hopkins Center for Prevention Research and tried to determine if they could use the same biomarker to determine who might be at a higher risk of committing suicide.
They were able to accurately determine, with between 80 and 90% accuracy, which subjects had experienced suicidal thoughts or made a suicide attempt just by looking at this gene as well as looking at gender, age, and levels of anxiety and stress.
The leader of the study Zachary Kaminsky, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at John Hopkins University School of Medicine, said that the biomarker might indicate someone’s vulnerability to anxiety and stress, it cannot say for sure if someone will experience suicidal thoughts or actions.
He compared it to walking across a street. You won’t automatically be destined to be hit by a car, but if you know your vulnerability then you might be more cautious. Since there are degrees of severity when contemplating or attempting suicide, the biomarker cannot make an accurate determination in all cases, but can indicate how a person might react under stress and anxiety.
According to the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. The organization has a goal of reducing the suicide rate by 20% in the next five years, in part to identify those at risk and research ways of prevention.
Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said “Suicide is complex and many factors affect a person’s risk, including biological, psychological and social factors, as well as access to lethal means.”
She also said that suicide rates have remained relatively steady in the U.S. over the past few decades with slight increases and decreases but nothing substantial. She views the study as part of a larger effort to determine that genetics is a factor and assess long term and immediate risk and research better treatment options.
But, Harkavy-Friedman was clear that while the biomarker could help determine a patient’s risk, assessment must be made on a case by case basis.
Kaminsky said that the biomarker could better determine if someone needed more monitoring, such as a soldier coming back from war that might be advised to temporarily give up their weapon if they were at a higher risk of suicidal thoughts.