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Suicide May Have a Genetic Cause: New Study


What drives people to commit suicide? Part of the answer may lie in their genes. A new study reports on evidence that suicide may have a genetic cause, news that could eventually help with prevention efforts.

One gene may be linked to suicidal behavior

Suicide is a growing concern in the United States and elsewhere around the world. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, there were 36,035 reported suicide deaths in 2008 (the latest available data), and suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Approximately 99 Americans take their own life each day, and 90% of them have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death.

At the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), researchers uncovered evidence that a methionine variation of the gene BDNF, which is involved in the development of the nervous system, was associated with a higher risk of suicidal behavior among people who had a psychiatric diagnosis compared with those who had the valine variation. Both methionine and valine are amino acids that play a part in human health.

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The researchers evaluated data from 3,352 people, of whom 1,202 had a history of suicidal behavior, and compared the genotypes of individuals who attempted or completed suicide with those who were nonsuicidal. Participants in the study had a variety of psychiatric conditions, including bipolar disorder, general mood disorders, schizophrenia, and depression.

Dr. James Kennedy, director of CAMH’s Neuroscience Research Department, noted that identifying a person’s suicide risk also involves consideration of recent and early childhood trauma, use of medications or addictive drugs, and other factors. Socioeconomic factors such as poverty, homelessness, discrimination, and unemployment can also be triggers.

The added element of a possible genetic cause of suicide could lead to a way to prevent deaths in the future. Kennedy noted that “Our findings may lead to the testing and development of treatments that target this gene in order to help prevent suicide.”

American Federation for Suicide Prevention
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

Updated May 22, 2014