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Could a blood test tell who will commit suicide?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Suicide is a major concern of psychiatrists, making it important to understand who is at risk in order to intervene. Researchers say there may be a blood test that can tell who will commit suicide that could provide an early warning and intervention for people at risk.

Alexander B. Niculescu III, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and medical neuroscience at the Indiana University (IU) School of Medicine and attending psychiatrist and research and development investigator at the Richard L. Roudebush Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Indianapolis, said in a press release the test could also help identify military personnel at risk.

"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,” Niculescu said.

He adds people won't say they're planning on killing themselves, making it especially important to find improved ways to identify people who are at risk. Some people quietly plan suicide that comes as a ‘surprise’.

The study

For their study Niculescu and colleagues collected blood samples and conducted interviews from patients with bi-polar disorder every 3 to 6 months.

Along the way the research team analyzed a variety of blood markers to match with participant’s who shifted from no thoughts of suicide to strong thoughts of committing the act.

Then they analyzed differences in gene expression using a system called Convergent Functional Genomics.

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Next, they drew blood samples from suicide victims in collaboration with the local coroner.

Common blood markers found among suicide victims

They discovered a series of markers that included SAT1 gene - spermidine/spermine N (1)-acetyltransferase 1 (SAT1) - that has previously been thought to play a role in depression and suicide were strong markers of suicide.

As a final step the researchers analyzed blood from people who were hospitalized and then later tried to commit suicide, again finding a correlation between high levels of the biomarkers in the blood stream related to being hospitalized and future suicide attempts.

Dr. Niculescu said the finding could mean not only high immediate risk of suicide, but could also mean higher long-term risk.

One of the study’s shortcomings is that the participants were all male. Niculescu said because there could be gender differences more studies are needed that include the general population.

Future studies are planned to include women as well as specific socioeconomic groups.

"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 said.

Niculescu says suicide is a preventable cause of death that claims 1 million lives a year worldwide. In the U. S. alone, there has been an upsurge in military deaths from suicide both among those active and among veterans.

The goal is to have something objective to use as a tool to measure a person’s risk for suicide. In the future, a blood test could predict people at risk for taking their own life.