Approximately a million people commit suicide each year. There are a host of therapeutic and psycho-pharmacological treatment options available for those with suicidal thoughts, depression, and/or mental illness, but in order to receive treatment, one (or one’s doctor) has to recognize that one is at risk — intervention isn’t terribly helpful to the unaware. Now, science can help identify those that may be at increased risk of suicidal ideation.
Psychiatrists at the University of Indiana have been searching for molecular indicators of suicide risk called biomarkers. The team published research in Molecular Psychiatry indicating their discovery of six biomarkers that can identify people at a higher risk of committing suicide.
The four-phase study started with the selection of nine men with bipolar disorder who had already been enrolled at a study at the university and who, during the course of that study, indicated increasing risk for suicide. Because they had been working with and collecting blood samples from these men, scientists were able to examine their blood cells for genetic changes. They found some possible biomarkers, which they compared to genes already identified as being linked to mental illness and suicide. “It works like a Google search ranking,” said Alexander Niculescu, one of the psychiatrists.
The researchers then compared the blood samples to those of nine men who had committed suicide. This allowed them to narrow down the list of possible biomarkers, which they whittled away further with intense statistical scrutiny of the remaining biomarkers. Ultimately, they found six biomarkers that they were confident indicate higher suicide risk.
Researchers checked their results against genetic samples from 42 men with bipolar disorder and 46 with schizophrenia and identified links with four of the biomarkers. Using the same 88 men, scientists were able to use the biomarkers in conjunction with clinical mood and mental state measurements to better predict suicide-related hospitalizations. Before using the biomarkers, researchers could predict hospitalizations 65% of the time, but with the biomarkers as an additional tool, that number increased to 80%, suggesting that the biomarkers don’t just indicate immediate risk, but also future risk.
Because the sample group for these studies was so small, the next step is to verify the psychiatrists’ conclusions in a larger study. The small sample size helped the team rule out false positives (an ironic phrase in this context). Then, the team can extend their study to other affected populations, such as people suffering from anxiety, depression, stress, or grief.
Much like with genetic testing to identify increased likelihood of cancer, at some point in the near future patients may be able to take blood tests to see if they’re at increased risk of suicide, which could help them and their providers get out in front of the problem. If only such a test could be developed for brain-eating amoebas…