Could a blood test gauge your risk of suicide?

A new study points to a genetic mutation that may be associated with suicidal thoughts and behavior

Published July 31, 2014 8:48PM (EDT)

                (<a href=''>cosmin4000</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>/Salon)
(cosmin4000 via iStock/Salon)

Could a blood test really gauge how likely one is to commit suicide? A new study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry indicates that this may one day be possible.

The researchers on the project compared brain tissue samples from those who had died from suicide and those who had died from other causes, and found that a genetic mutation in a gene called SKA2 was more common among the samples from people who had committed suicide. The team also found that those who had committed suicide more commonly had an epigenetic change (or a chemical change  that occurs "on top" of the gene, often from environmental and social factors) on SKA2.

The researchers then applied their findings to a living population. LiveScience elaborates:

Next, the researchers examined whether these genetic changes could predict a person's risk of having suicidal thoughts or attempting suicide. Using blood samples from 325 people, the scientists created a model that took into account whether a person had the SKA2 genetic mutation and the epigenetic change, as well as the person's age, sex, and stress and anxiety levels. The researchers tested this model on 22 people ages 15 to 24, and about 50 pregnant women, who all gave blood samples Scientists then followed up with these individuals to see whether they had experienced suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide.

The model correctly identified 80 percent to 96 percent of people who experienced suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide. It was more accurate among people at severe risk for suicide.

The researchers think the mutation could be involved in the body's stress reaction. However, since the sample size was so small, much work will have to be done before this can have any practical application.

Epigenetic changes have been proven to have an effect on one's response to stress and adversity, so taking this concept to the extreme of suicidal depression is logical. Theoretically, should we hospitalize someone because their genes say they could be more likely to attempt suicide? The idea of forming policy based on these kinds of tests (think Minority Report) is problematic--just because an individual has a predisposition to some sort of behavior does not mean that she will act on that predisposition.

By Joanna Rothkopf

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Epigenetics Ethics Genetics Suicide