April 25, 2008

Possible Link Between Suicide and Earth’s Magnetic Field

A Russian scientist has looked in to a possible link between geomagnetism and human health, suggesting their may be a relation to the number of suicides during certain seasonal peaks in the Earth's geomagnetic field.

Oleg Shumilov of the Institute of North Industrial Ecology Problems in Russia believes human beings may be able to sense the Earth's magnetic field just as many animals do.

Light levels in northern countries are known to influence depression, but Shumilov thinks geomagnetism may be another factor that requires more consideration.

Shumilov studied activity in the Earth's geomagnetic field from 1948 to 1997 and found that it grouped into three seasonal peaks every year"”these geomagnetism peaks mirrored peaks in suicide rates over the same time period in the city of Kirovsk, located in the far north of Russia.

Though there is no evidence of a causal link, Shumilov says other studies, such as one published in 2006 over cardiovascular health and disturbances in the geomagnetic field, show that a link could be inferred, particularly in high latitude areas.

However, he does not believe geomagnetic activity influences everyone equally.

Geomagnetic health problems affect 10 to 15% of the population," said Michael Rycroft, who published a study on the topic in Surveys in Geophysics.

Rycroft said similar results to Shumilov's have been found in independent sets of data, suggesting something may be linking the two factors.

A review of suicide rates and their relation to magnetic storms in South Africa have also been published in Psychiatric circles.

High Periods of geomagnetic activity caused by large solar flares, known as geomagnetic storms, have been linked to clinical depression.

A study published in The British Journal of Psychiatry suggested a 36.2% increase in the number of men admitted into hospital for depression two weeks after geomagnetic storms.

Rycroft believes the correlation between geomagnetism and suicide justifies more research.

Kelly Posner, a psychiatrist at Columbia University, is skeptical but says geomagnetic storms can desynchronize circadian rhythms and melatonin production.

"The circadian regulatory system depends upon repeated environmental cues to synchronize internal clocks," says Posner. "Magnetic fields may be one of these environmental cues."

She said geomagnetic storms could disrupt body clocks, precipitating seasonal affective disorder and that could perpetuate suicide risk.

Shumilov presented his research at the European Geoscience Union annual meeting in Vienna, Austria.

At the meeting Shumilov showed hospital data from thousands of pregnant women where in 15% of the fetuses, periods of disturbances in their heart rates coincided with periods of high geomagnetic activity.

"The trouble with studying the causes of suicide is that it is a rare condition. You are bound to get spurious effects. A study of the causes would have to enroll a country's entire population," said Klaus Ebmeier, a psychiatrist at the University of Oxford.

Psychiatrists say dealing with suicide statistics is a touchy endeavor.

"Countries report them differently. Catholic countries are very reluctant to diagnose suicide. Scandinavian countries consider it a social injustice not to," said Cosmo Hallstrom, a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.


Image Caption: The magnetosphere shields the surface of the Earth from the charged particles of the solar wind. It is compressed on the day (Sun) side due to the force of the arriving particles, and extended on the night side. (Image not to scale.). Image Courtesy NASA


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