Exploring the genetic contribution to suicide risk

November 19, 2018, University of Utah
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Researchers at University of Utah Health identified four gene changes that occur more frequently in people who died by suicide that may point to increased risk in vulnerable individuals.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, claiming more than 44,000 people in the country every year, similar to the number of deaths caused by the opioid epidemic. Previous studies show that tracks in families independent of the effects from a shared environment. Researchers at the University of Utah Health are using resources unique to the state to identify underlying that may increase the risk for suicide. The results are available online in the journal Molecular Psychiatry in November.

"Past studies of families and twins informed us that there is significant genetic risk associated with suicide," said Douglas Gray, M.D., professor of Psychiatry at U of U Health and senior author on the paper. "Genes are like blueprints. The first step is to find the genes that increase risk. Identifying specific genes may lead to new treatments for those who suffer."

Through this approach, the team was able to identify variants in four genes (SP110, AGBL2, SUCLA2 and APH1B) that could increase the risk for death by suicide.

"We are using high-risk very extended families like a magnifying glass to get us to the right genes that increase the risk for this tragic outcome," said Hilary Coon, Ph.D., professor in Psychiatry at U of U Health and first author on the paper.

Focusing on distantly-related suicides in 43 high-risk families provides a more genetically homogenous group that amplifies the genetic risks of suicide while minimizing shared environmental effects, such as stresses due to divorce or unemployment, or easy access to lethal means. The families' genealogical information extends back nine generations.

"In this study, we began by looking for the low hanging fruit, the genomic changes that could affect the structure or function of a gene," Coon said. "We think these results are just the tip of the iceberg. We will continue to search for additional gene changes that lead to risk."

The researchers looked for genetic variation in more than 1,300 DNA samples obtained from the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner from individuals who died by suicide in the state. These samples represent a subset of a much larger resource of more than 6,000 suicide cases with DNA. The team linked the DNA results to the Utah Population database, which contains the genealogical and recent medical records from more than eight million people, as well as death certificates dating back to 1904.

DNA from suicide cases as well as genealogical structure were de-identified before being released to Coon and her team for analysis.

Through this study, they identified specific changes in four genes, but also 207 genes that warrant further analysis to understand their potential role in people who die by suicide. Eighteen of these genes have been previously associated with suicide risk. Fifteen of the previously identified have also been associated with inflammatory conditions, supporting growing evidence for a relationship between inflammation and mental health.

The study does have limitations. The majority of suicide cases were from Northern European ancestry. Not every individual with a DNA sample in the analysis had available medical record data to clarify presence or absence of a mental health diagnosis. Missing data does not mean an absence of a diagnosis due to care outside the state, lack of insurance, cultural factors or stigma.

Coon cautions that suicide is like any complex human condition. There may be a variety of genetic changes that make one more prone to risk, she said. But many factors in the environment will also modify that risk.

"Clearly genetics is only one part of risk when it comes to suicide," Coon said. "But we are hoping these discoveries will lead us to highly susceptible individuals so we can develop better interventions to help them circumvent this risk."

Explore further: Researchers investigate genetics of suicide

More information: Molecular Psychiatry (2018). www.nature.com/articles/s41380-018-0282-3

Related Stories

Researchers investigate genetics of suicide

September 8, 2017
Even today, suicide is a taboo topic often discussed in whispers and swept to the shadows of society, despite it being the leading cause of death among youth in Utah and the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. ...

Clearing up misconceptions about gun violence could make suicide attempts less deadly, study says

November 2, 2018
When we talk about gun violence in the United States, we talk about homicides. But there are roughly twice as many suicides as homicides every year, and more than half of them involve guns.

Suicide and genetics: a complicated association

April 22, 2017
Dear Mayo Clinic: Why does it seem that suicide tends to run in families? Does it have anything to do with genetics?

Chronic pain may be an important contributor to suicide

September 10, 2018
Chronic pain may be an important contributor to suicide. Nearly 9 percent of people who died by suicide in 18 states from 2003 to 2014 had documentation of chronic pain in their incident records. Findings from the National ...

Patients with OCD are 10 times more likely to commit suicide

July 19, 2016
Patients with OCD are 10 times more likely to commit suicide, contrary to what was previously thought. In a new study from Karolinska Institutet published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, is also shown that the main predictor ...

Genetic changes caused by environmental factors linked to suicide risk

December 19, 2017
Researchers have linked genetic changes in the so-called CRH gene, which affects the regulation of the body's stress system, to suicide risk and psychiatric illness. The study of epigenetic changes in the body's hormone-based ...

Recommended for you

Trying to get people to agree? Skip the French restaurant and go out for Chinese food

December 11, 2018
Here's a new negotiating tactic: enjoy a family-style meal with your counterpart before making your opening bid.

What social stress in monkeys can tell us about human health

December 11, 2018
Research in recent years has linked a person's physical or social environment to their well-being. Stress wears down the body and compromises the immune system, leaving a person more vulnerable to illnesses and other conditions. ...

The richer the reward, the faster you'll likely move to reach it, study shows

December 11, 2018
If you are wondering how long you personally are willing to stand in line to buy that hot new holiday gift, scientists at Johns Hopkins Medicine say the answer may be found in the biological rules governing how animals typically ...

Receiving genetic information can change risk

December 11, 2018
Millions of people in the United States alone have submitted their DNA for analysis and received information that not only predicts their risk for disease but, it turns out, in some cases might also have influenced that risk, ...

Using neurofeedback to prevent PTSD in soldiers

December 11, 2018
A team of researchers from Israel, the U.S. and the U.K. has found that using neurofeedback could prevent soldiers from experiencing PTSD after engaging in emotionally difficult situations. In their paper published in the ...

You make decisions quicker and based on less information than you think

December 11, 2018
We live in an age of information. In theory, we can learn everything about anyone or anything at the touch of a button. All this information should allow us to make super-informed, data-driven decisions all the time.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.