Scientists Discover a Revolutionary Way to Spot a Suicide Before It Happens


The news: Predicting if someone will die by suicide may be as simple as doing a blood test.

It turns out that many people who try to end their life have a chemical alteration to a single gene, which scientists can spot with just a few drops of blood. The new research comes from scientists at Johns Hopkins University, who published their results Wednesday in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

For those of us who know someone who has attempted or died by suicide, the possibility of a professionally-administered blood test is a welcome addition to the existing patchwork of suicide prevention hot lines and support groups that exist to subvert tragedy. The evaluation could be a huge step towards curbing a national problem — nearly 30,000 Americans die from suicide every year.

The background: After looking at the brains of mentally ill and healthy people, scientists found the "suicide gene," or more accurately, one of many genes that help predict how people respond to stress and anxiety. Those who had died by suicide successfully had far lower levels of the gene than their non-suicidal peers. Then, researchers tested a group of 325 volunteers for the same gene. They predicted with 80% accuracy who among them was experiencing suicidal thoughts or had attempted to end his or her life — all using the levels of expression of that single gene.

What makes this one gene special? The gene the scientists identified regulates the flow of the stress hormone cortisol, which helps us block negative thoughts and control impulsive behavior, throughout the brain. Yet the hormone has been shown to be more important than merely helping to control our everyday levels of fatigue or discomfort: Previous research has found that many who attempt or die by suicide have abnormal cortisol levels.

In their recent study, the researchers also found that those at risk of suicide — participants who had thought about or attempted suicide in the past — had a significantly lower level of the cortisol-regulation gene. They also had higher levels of a chemical involved in subduing its expression.

"With a test like ours, we may be able to stem suicide rates by identifying those people and intervening early enough to head off a catastrophe," lead study author Zachary Kaminsky, who teaches psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told Science Daily.

Why it matters: Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States. Among young Americans, it is the third-leading killer. And while some are more likely to attempt harming themselves, such as those with mental illness or a history of drug abuse, many exhibit no warning signs.

Image Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

While this test could bring us one step closer to preventing tragedy, it's not the first of its kind. Back in August, a group of researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine picked out half a dozen biological characteristics, from specific genes to proteins in the blood, that might indicate a person is more likely to attempt suicide.

Image Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

While the most recent test won't necessarily tell someone if he or she is going to attempt to take his or her own life, it would show if someone has an increased risk of suicide, says Kaminsky. That's an important step in the right direction.