Suicide is one of the leading causes of death globally. Every year, in fact, over 700.000 people decide to put an end to their lives. In particular, it is the fourth cause of death for people aged between 15 and 29 years.
To try to prevent these tragic situations, a group of researchers decided to investigate genetics as a possible cause. The goal is to better understand the mechanisms underlying this phenomenon and, consequently, identify new strategies to prevent suicide.
A systematic review
Duke HealthIn partnership with Durham Veteran's Association, conducted a study of a large sample of US military veterans, analyzing the medical records of 633.778 individuals. During the course of the investigation, it was found that as many as 121.211 of these veterans had documented suicidal thoughts or actions in their medical records.
The control group used for this study consisted of individuals belonging to the same sample, but who had no documented history of self-harm. This allowed us to evaluate the effect of exposure to military service on suicidal propensity.
Duke's research led to a complete whole-genome analysis of blood samples from all study participants. The analysis highlighted several genes that were more frequently present among those who had documented suicidal thoughts or actions. This association was independent of the background of the participants. In essence, there are 4 genes, four "suicide riders" related to this risk and also associated with psychiatric conditions such as depression, anxiety and psychosis.
The Four Genes "Suicide Knights"
- ESR1 it is a gene that controls the body's response to estrogen. Recent studies have shown that a low level of this gene can increase the risk of suffering from disorders such as post-traumatic stress and depression, both risk factors for suicide.
- DRD2 it controls the body's response to dopamine, a brain chemical that makes us feel happy and motivated. A low level of this gene can increase the risk of suffering from suicide, schizophrenia, mood disorders, ADHD and addictions.
- DCC deals with communication between brain cells. Recent studies have shown that a high level of this gene can increase the risk of suffering from various psychiatric conditions and dying by suicide.
- TRAF3 instead, it controls inflammation in the brain. Recent studies have shown that a high level of this gene may increase the risk of antisocial behavior, substance dependence and ADHD, and may be a risk factor for bipolar disorder and suicide.
Towards genetic treatments against suicide?
The identification of these four key genes could help identify new treatments for psychiatric conditions that often lead to an increased risk of suicide. An important step to potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives each year. It is suggestive to imagine a future in which advanced genetics could even "stop" the possibility of suicide in an embryo, even before a child is born.
Ethical doubts arise in any case. Knowing that susceptibility to suicide or depression has a genetic basis could provide a set of important information, which in the wrong hands would very easily allow people with these difficulties to be manipulated. Perhaps, however, the risk is worth the candle: in the vast majority of cases, in fact, suicide is anything but a "political" or identity-related gesture that represents individual freedom.