Genetics Can Lead To Higher Suicide Risk, Study Finds

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Key Takeaways

  • A research team is the first to test the entire genome to identify which genes are linked to suicide.
  • The team hopes their findings could eventually pave the way for a genetic test to identify risk, but note that not all suicide risk is based on genetic factors.

A new study sheds light on the genes that may be able to predict someone's risk of suicide. The research may pave the way for a genetic test that could potentially predict a person’s risk of suicide.

The test would be a long way off, but the research provides a foundation. According to Anna R. Docherty, PhD, lead author and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah Health, it gives us a better understanding of the genes involved in suicide risk—and the potential for calculating risk based on these genes.

The October study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry details Docherty’s research that found more than 20 genes that may play a role in suicide. Researchers say their evaluation was among the first genome-wide assessment of suicide death. It also found cross-connections to behaviors and psychiatric diseases that are linked to suicide, which include:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Autism spectrum disorder

The medical community has known genetics play a factor in suicide risk, but didn’t know much about which genes are involved. “This is the first well-powered study of suicide deaths,” Docherty tells Verywell. It used enough people to assess genetic markers of suicide death risk quite precisely, she adds.

“What we know is that there’s no one gene that causes suicide, there are lots of genes involved,” Docherty says. Still, a person can have a high genetic risk and never attempt or die from suicide, she points out.

“This research tells us that genetics is really important for understanding risk,” she says. “If we know biological indicators of risk we can start testing for risk in the clinic.”

What This Means For You

Researchers know that genes play a role in suicide risk, but it's not the only or the sole contributor. If you're struggling with suicidal thoughts, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for immediate help: 1-800-273-8255.

Understanding Role of Genetics in Suicide

The team used computer technology to evaluate millions of DNA variants in 3,413 samples. Some of the samples came from people who died from suicide and had family history; others did not.

They compared the DNA of more than 14,000 people of the same ancestry who didn’t die from suicide and looked at medical records for mental and physical health conditions. Then they leveraged the genome-wide association study (GWAS) to analyze genetic variants known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). The millions of SNPs helped them identify 22 genes potentially implicated in posing an increased suicide risk. They were found on four chromosomes.

In order to determine if people who died from suicide had other issues, researchers scored suicide deaths based on genetic risks for other problems. They noted that those who died from suicide had significantly higher genetic risks for impulsivity, schizophrenia, and major depression. Those are known risk factors for suicide death, the researchers say.

“Death by suicide typically requires a cascade of events,” Douglas Gray, MD, co-author of the study, said in a statement. “That cascade could include a genetic predisposition combined with untreated or undertreated mental illness, substance abuse, the strains of daily life when your brain isn’t functioning well, firearm availability, and a final instigating stressor, such as a romantic breakup, that leads to tragedy.”

For this study, subjects were from Northern European areas, and not everyone had a medical record to demonstrate a prior mental health diagnosis. In the future, the team wants to conduct larger and more diverse suicide research.

“This study and others that follow are going to allow us to better understand the constellation of risk factors associated with suicide and to help decrease stigma relating to it,” Docherty said in the statement. “It will hopefully encourage families with a history of suicide to learn more and discuss risk and protective factors, as they would talk about other medical conditions like high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease.”

The Future of Predicting Suicide

There are ethical issues around letting a person know if they are at high risk. But it could help make resources more available for high-risk individuals as well. Docherty says knowing who is at a higher risk with a lab test could tell doctors which people could benefit from enhanced outreach.

In the future, they want to look at genetic risk by age group and gender. Though Docherty stressed there is no test available on the market now, she believes her research could contribute to making a possible blood or saliva test in the future.

“We’re still a ways away from that,” she says.

We still need to know how we can better predict suicide risk with genes and other risk factors, Docherty says. There are other factors that can play a role in a person's risk for suicide such as:

  • Chronic pain
  • Pulmonary conditions
  • Alcohol use
  • Childhood trauma and stress

“I think it’s important to know that suicide is not just depression. Even people without depression can be at risk," she says. “We know that suicide isn't just a matter of mental illness—it's more complicated than that."

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  1. Docherty, A, et al. Genome-wide association study of suicide death and polygenic prediction of clinical antecedents. Am J Psychiatry. Oct. 1, 2020. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2020.19101025

  2. Coon H, et al. Genome-wide significant regions in 43 Utah high-risk families implicate multiple genes involved in risk for completed suicide. Molecular Psychiatry. Oct. 23, 2018. doi:10.1038/s41380-018-0282-3

  3. University of Utah Health. Genetic Discover Could Lead to Better Prediction of Suicide Risk Within Families. November 25, 2020.