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The reasons why people attempt suicide include triggers like trauma and stress, as well as inherited genetic factors. A new study has identified 12 DNA variants, or variations in the human genetic code, that are associated with the risk of attempting suicide. The research highlights genetic links between suicide attempts and factors that influence physical and behavioral health—including impulsivity, smoking, chronic pain, ADHD, pulmonary conditions and heart disease.
These findings suggest that some genetic underpinnings of suicide are shared with these conditions. This information could lead to a better understanding of the biological causes of suicide and improvements in prevention strategies. Eventually, such advances could help health care providers identify people who may need mental health support.
“Many people who die from suicide have significant health conditions associated with that risk,” said Anna Docherty, the study’s corresponding author and associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HMHI). “If we can use genetic information to characterize the health risks of those who attempt suicide, we can better identify those patients who need contact with the mental health care system.”
The study was published Oct. 1 in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Scientists at HMHI, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham Veterans Affairs Health Care System and Vanderbilt University Medical Center led the collaboration with multiple institutions worldwide. They analyzed data from 22 different populations across the globe, including people of diverse ancestral and ethnic backgrounds.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide has become a leading cause of death in the United States, especially among young people. Suicide rates increased by 36% from 2000 to 2021, when 48,183 Americans took their lives.
No single gene causes someone to attempt suicide. Rather, the cumulative effect of many different genes influences a person’s risk. “In psychiatry, we have many tiny genetic effects, but when we account for all of them together, we start to see a real genetic risk signal,” Docherty explained.
To tease out such a diffuse signal, researchers applied statistical methods to data collected from a large number of people and identified genetic variations that are more common among individuals who have attempted suicide. The new analysis combines data from the Million Veteran Program (MVP) and the International Suicide Genetics Consortium (ISGC). Together, these include 43,871 documented suicide attempts and 915,025 ancestry-matched controls, making this the largest genetic study of suicide to date.
A meta-analysis of the studies identified new genetic variants that correlated with suicide attempts. The researchers then compared all variant signals with previously published genetic data on more than 1,000 other traits and disorders, including psychiatric conditions (e.g., ADHD), physical conditions (e.g., heart disease), and behaviors (e.g., smoking), and determined that genetic variants linked to suicide attempt are also linked to other health conditions.
“That allowed us to look at how genetic risk for suicide overlaps with genetic risk for depression, heart disease and many other risk factors,” Docherty said. “It showed significant overlap with mental health conditions, but also a lot of physical health conditions, particularly for smoking and lung-related illnesses. This is something we can’t necessarily see in medical records of people who die from suicide.”
The results do not mean that people with any one of these health factors are at elevated risk for attempting suicide, according to co-author Hillary Coon, a professor of psychiatry at HMHI. Rather, combining the genetic predisposition with other stressors—which could include other genetic risk factors, health conditions, life circumstances or traumatic events—could increase that risk, she explained.
Initial analyses support the idea that many of the DNA variants the scientists identified are located in genes with known biological functions, bolstering the case that changes in these genes could affect a person’s physiology or behavior. Several of the genes control processes in cells such as managing cellular stress, repairing damaged DNA and communicating with the immune system. Most are also highly expressed in the brain and are known targets of antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs.
Scientists will need to carry out additional studies to determine whether the variants directly or indirectly affect suicide risk, and how. The research so far has shown an association and not cause and effect.
The research was published as “Genome-wide association study meta-analysis of suicide attempt identifies twelve genome-wide significant loci and implicates genetic risks for specific health factors,” with support from the National Institutes of Health, Huntsman Mental Health Institute, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Janssen Research and Development, LLC, Clark Tanner Research Foundation, Clinical Science Research and Development Sevice of the Veterans Health Administration Office of Research and Development, and the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation.
About Huntsman Mental Health Institute
The Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HMHI) was established in 2021 following the Huntsman Foundation’s historic gift of $150 million to the University of Utah. HMHI is a university-wide institute with a reputation throughout the Mountain West as a leader in advanced psychiatric treatment and care, serving a diverse population from young children to geriatric patients. Researchers at HMHI develop and apply the most advanced methods in genetics, imaging, epidemiology, and big data analysis. HMHI is also the regional training center for psychiatry and other mental health disciplines. Its main 170-bed full-service hospital is adjacent to the University of Utah campus, and its 1,644 faculty, staff and students provide clinical, research and training programs in more than 20 locations across Utah and Idaho.
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