Largest-Ever Genetic Study of Suicide Finds New Risk Factors

Anna Docherty of HMHI

The reasons why people attempt suicide include triggers like trauma and stress, as well as inherited genetic factors. A new study has identified 12 DNA variants, or variations in the human genetic code, that are associated with risk of attempting suicide. The research highlights genetic links between suicide attempt and factors that influence physical and behavioral health—including impulsivity, smoking, chronic pain, ADHD, pulmonary conditions, and heart disease. 

These findings suggest that some of the genetic underpinnings of suicide are shared with these conditions. One day, this information could lead to a better understanding of biological causes of suicide and improvements in prevention strategies. Eventually, such advances could help health care providers identify people who may need mental health support.

Many people who die from suicide have significant health conditions associated with that risk,” says Anna Docherty, the study’s author and associate professor of psychiatry at Huntsman Mental Health Institute. “If we can use genetic information to characterize the health risks of those who attempt suicide, we can better identify those patients who need contact with the mental health care system.” The research was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

No single gene causes suicide. Rather, the cumulative effect of many different genes influences a person’s risk. Researchers used statistical methods on data from 43,871 suicide attempts and 915,025 controls in the largest genetic study of suicide, combining data from the Million Veteran Program and the International Suicide Genetics Consortium. They found that genetic variants linked to suicide attempts also correlate with various psychiatric and physical conditions and behaviors.


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