Recent genetics study finds additional risk factors for suicide

Oct 4, 2023, 1:03 PM

Image of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute on the campus of the University of Utah., which along...

The Huntsman Mental Health Institute in Salt Lake City. (Huntsman Mental Health)

(Huntsman Mental Health)

SALT LAKE CITY— A recent study discovered that genetics and biology play a role in one’s risk for attempted suicide.

The Huntsman Mental Health Institute along with several other organizations studied data from 22 different global populations to identify possible genetic factors related to suicide.

“We looked at the DNA of thousands of individuals who had either died by suicide or attempted suicide, and we compared that information with DNA from people who had not,” said Anna Docherty, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

(If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dial 988 for crisis help and support.)

A dozen DNA variants associated with risk of suicide

The study identified 12 DNA variants that were associated with a risk of attempted suicide in the study group.

Researchers also found that these genetic variants linked to suicide attempts are also linked to other behavioral and psychiatric conditions, such as ADHD, impulsivity, smoking, chronic pain, and heart disease.

A single gene by itself does not cause an extremely high risk of attempted suicide, according to the study. However, when combined with other genetic, behavioral, and environmental factors, the risk dramatically increases.

Everyone has some biological risk, according to Docherty, but that will not determine whether or not we die by suicide. Rather, the biological risks found in our genomes can help identify other environmental factors that are more harmful in increasing suicide rates.

“We wanted to know, first of all, are there people who are more biologically at risk for suicide? The answer is yes. And in those individuals, are environmental risk factors more important than for the rest of the population? The answer is yes,” says Docherty.

The main findings of genetics, suicide study

  • The genetic risk for suicide is inheritable.
    • If one’s family has a history of suicide, other members of that family likely have a higher genetic risk for attempted suicide
  • There are certain environmental risk factors that are linked to genetic risks.
  • There is an overlap between environmental, behavioral, and genetic risk factors.
  • These genetic links are found across multiple ancestries and not defined to only one ethnicity.
  • Genetic suicide risk looks similar across military and civilian populations.

Here are the next steps 

Docherty says moving forward, her research team will work to translate these results to be clinically informative. Thus, helping clinicians understand what factors they will look for in those who need help, and how to treat them.

“That helps us understand what clinical populations we need to treat,” she says. “Which clearly are not just depressed clinical populations.”

This study is also the first step in identifying and potentially diminishing the biological causes of suicide. By using genetic analysis, researchers will “start to understand what environmental risk factors might be causing genetic risk for suicide,” says Docherty.

Once researchers identify those environmental factors they can work to reduce them, further reducing biological risk and reducing the overall suicide death rate.

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Recent genetics study finds additional risk factors for suicide