When it comes to the tragedy of suicide many subjects arise including the theory that suicide might run in families. A famous example of this phenomenon is poet Sylvia Plath who notoriously died by asphyxiation by putting her head inside an oven in 1963. Forty-six years later, her son, marine biologist Nicholas Hughes took his own life by hanging. The Hemingway clan is also notable for multiple suicides, including author Ernest Hemingway, his father, brother, sister and granddaughter.
An important publication in 2012 entitled The Neurobiological Basis of Suicide cites several biological studies that have reported a higher rate of suicidal behavior in relatives of suicide victims or suicide attempters, compared to relatives of non-suicidal controls. One hundred-year longitudinal study from 1880 to 1980 of an Amish community found 26 reported suicides from just four families who also had a high incidence of mood disorders. The study revealed that the other Amish families were also affected by a prevalence of mood disorders, but had no suicide incidents.
Furthermore, in studying identical (monozygotic) twins, researchers investigated the risk of a twin attempting or completing a suicide if his or her twin had completed suicide. The study revealed that 10 of 26 surviving co-twins had attempted suicide, compared to none of the nine surviving fraternal twins in the study. Fourteen other studies cited in this publication support the increased rates of suicide in families of suicide completers, suggesting the existence of a common suicide phenotype. This includes both biological and environmental factors, such as the fact that 90 percent of people who die by suicide have depression or another mental disorder and/or a substance abuse disorder.
Brain abnormalities and genetic variations predict risk
Another study from Columbia University identified a physiological abnormality present in the brains of people suffering from depression. By looking at a sample of 131 people who were biological offspring of people with depression, researchers identified a 28 percent thinning of the right cortex. Those who also had extra thinning in the left cortex were most likely to develop depression or anxiety.
A Canadian study at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health found evidence that a specific gene is linked to suicidal behavior. After combining 11 previous studies with data from the CAMH study, which included data from 3,352 people, scientists confirmed that people who had a psychiatric diagnosis and also had the methionine variation of the BDNF gene, were at greater risk of suicidal behavior compared to those with the valine variation.
In 2014, John Hopkins researchers discovered a chemical alteration in a gene linked to stress reactions. The experiment focused on a genetic mutation in a gene known as SKA2. In the samples from people who had died by suicide, levels of SKA2, which controls impulsive behavior and inhibits negative thoughts, were dramatically reduced. In a subset there was a modification that showed higher levels of methylation. In another part of the study, the researchers tested blood samples of 325 participants who had reported suicidal thoughts or attempts and found similar methylation increases in SKA2. Those with more severe risk of suicide were predicted with 90 percent accuracy based on the blood test results.
If this finding is replicated in further studies using larger samples, doctors might soon have a simple blood test available to reliably predict a person’s suicide risk.
“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,” said the study leader, Zachary Kaminsky, Ph.D.
Preventing and treating suicide for those at risk
Genomic testing and improving brain imaging techniques are making huge strides in recent years and can be applied to the field of mental health accordingly. The promising findings in these studies pave the way for significant progress in the ability to predict suicide risk and to intervene and treat individuals who might, without such help, end their lives.
Sovereign Health of California is an addiction, mental health and dual diagnosis treatment provider, offering several locations in California as well as centers in Utah, Arizona and Florida. For more information on help with mental health disorders, suicide prevention and substance abuse, please call (866) 819-0427.
Written by Eileen Spatz, Sovereign Health Group writer