What you need to know:
- The Duke University research team, led by Dr Nathan Kimbrel and Dr Allison Ashley-Koch, found that four genes (ESR1, DRD2, DCC, and TRAF3) were associated with high risk of suicide.
Four genes have been identified as being associated with an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviours in a large study of military members.
The Duke University research team, led by Dr Nathan Kimbrel and Dr Allison Ashley-Koch, found that four genes (ESR1, DRD2, DCC, and TRAF3) were significantly correlated with this population.
“It’s important to note that these genes do not predestine anyone to problems, but it’s also important to understand that there could be heightened risks, particularly when combined with life events,” said Nathan Kimbrel, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke and co-lead author of the study published online on December 14, 2022 in the JAMA Psychiatry journal.
The group used information from 633,778 US war veterans. Some 71.4 per cent of the participants could trace their roots to Europe, 19.1 per cent to Africa, 8.1 per cent to the Americas and 1.3 per cent to Asia. Approximately 9 percent of the study participants were female. The medical records of the veterans revealed 121,211 instances of suicide attempts or suicide ideation. If there was no record of self-harming behaviour among the participants, they were considered controls.
Genome-wide analysis of blood samples allowed the research team to identify several genes shared by people with documented cases of suicidal thoughts or actions, regardless of ethnicity. The strongest associations were found for four genes that have been linked to mental health issues before.
ESR1, an estrogen receptor, has been established as a genetic driver gene for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, both of which increase the risk of suicidal behaviour among veterans. DRD2 is a dopamine receptor that has been linked to suicidal ideation, schizophrenia, mood disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, impulsive and dangerous behaviour, and alcohol abuse.
DCC is highly expressed in the brain and has been linked to a wide range of mental health problems. In the brains of those who take their own lives, researchers have found significantly higher concentrations. TRAF3 has been linked to sociopathic tendencies, substance abuse and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“While genes account for a small amount of risk relative to other factors, we need to better understand the biological pathways that underly a person’s risk for engaging in suicidal behaviour,” said Dr Kimbrel.