By Diane Allingham-Hawkins, PhD, FCCMG, FACMG, Senior Director, Genetic Test Evaluation Program
Once again the world mourns the untimely death of a public figure, this time actor and comedian Robin Williams, who died of suspected suicide on August 11, 2014. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 40,000 Americans die from suicide each year, more than the number of people killed annually in motor vehicle accidents. Suicide is a complex human behavior, with no single determining cause, which also affects the health of others and the community. You can find information about suicide prevention at the CDC.
Although today we have no foolproof way to predict which individuals are at increased risk of taking their lives, in the future we may be better able to do so. Researchers at Johns Hopkins have discovered a variant in a single gene that is involved in the activity of human stress hormones. The gene SKA2 plays a role in transporting stress hormones into cells, where they work to help us deal with stress, inhibit negative thoughts, and control impulsive behavior. In individuals with an altered gene, the stress hormones are unable to reach the cells to do their job. The investigators found that levels of the SKA2 protein were extremely reduced in samples of brain tissue from people who completed suicide. These findings were published in the July 30, 2014, issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Certainly more evidence-based research is needed, but the possibility exists to develop a blood test based on these findings that could identify those who have the genetic variant that makes them more vulnerable to suicide. Families and healthcare providers could use the test results to identify individuals who need more intensive intervention and close monitoring, perhaps even hospitalization.
It’s naïve to think that a simple blood test will solely be able to prevent suicide; however, it could be another tool—and a valuable one at that—in identifying individuals at high risk and implementing appropriate preventative interventions.