August 20, 2013
Predicting Suicide With Genetic Biomarkers
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Predicting future behavior is never easy, but new research from scientists at Indiana University has found that certain genetic biomarkers can help predict when someone will attempt suicide.
According to a report of their study in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, Indiana researchers found elevated levels of certain RNA biomarkers in the blood of both bipolar disorder patients having suicidal thought as well individuals who had committed suicide.
"Suicide is a big problem in psychiatry. It's a big problem in the civilian realm, it's a big problem in the military realm and there are no objective markers," said study author Dr. Alexander B. Niculescu, a lab director at the Institute of Psychiatric Research in the IU School of Medicine. "There are people who will not reveal they are having suicidal thoughts when you ask them, who then commit it and there's nothing you can do about it.”
“We need better ways to identify, intervene and prevent these tragic cases," he added.
Over the course of three years, the researchers tracked male volunteers diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Volunteers were interviewed and provided blood samples every three to six months. The researchers performed specific analyses on samples from a subset of participants who suddenly began reporting strong suicidal thoughts.
The tests revealed differences in genetic activity between the "low" and "high" states of suicidal thoughts. Using a system of genetic analysis called Convergent Functional Genomics, the scientists were able to locate and prioritize the best markers for their mental state. One particular marker SAT1 as well as several others provided the strongest biological predictor for suicidal thoughts.
To test their initial findings, the IU researchers coordinated with a local coroner's office to obtain and test blood samples from suicide victims. The researchers found that some of same genetic markers were significantly elevated in these samples.
In a final set of tests, the research team looked at blood test results from two more groups of patients and found that biomarkers were also correlated with both future suicide-related hospitalizations and hospitalizations that had occurred before the blood tests.
"This suggests that these markers reflect more than just a current state of high risk, but could be trait markers that correlate with long term risk," Niculescu said.
The doctor noted that the study was limited by the fact that all the tested subjects were males. However, males are significantly overrepresented in suicide statistics.
"There could be gender differences," he said. "We would also like to conduct more extensive, normative studies, in the population at large."
In addition to testing females, the study researchers said they planned to look into planned, deliberate suicides and how they related to more impulsive acts.
"These seem to be good markers for suicidal behavior in males who have bipolar mood disorders or males in the general population who commit impulsive violent suicide,” Niculescu said. “In the future we want to study and assemble clinical and socio-demographic risk factors, along with our blood tests, to increase our ability to predict risk.”
"Suicide is complex: in addition to psychiatric and addiction issues that make people more vulnerable, there are existential issues related to lack of satisfaction with one's life, lack of hope for the future, not feeling needed, and cultural factors that make suicide seem like an option,” he added.