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Is Suicide Genetic?

And what drives the lack of studies into the subject?

Helen Smith


August 17, 2014 - 7:54 am


Some researchers say yes:

No one could have predicted that Oscar-winning comedian Robin Williams would kill himself.

Or could they?

When someone commits suicide, the reaction is often the same. It’s disbelief, mixed with a recognition that the signs were all there. Depression. Maybe talk of ending one’s life.

Now, by studying people who think about committing suicide, as well as brains of people who actually did, two groups of genome researchers in the U.S. and Europe are claiming they can use DNA tests to actually predict who will attempt suicide.

While claims for a suicide test remain preliminary, and controversial, a “suicide gene” is not as fanciful as it sounds.

The problem is that suicide samples are small and I often wonder how much gender plays a role in the lack of studies and data on suicide:

“We seem to be able to predict suicidal behavior and attempts, based on seeing these epigenetic changes in the blood,” says Kaminsky. “The caveat is that we have small sample sizes.”

Kaminsky says that following the report, his e-mail inbox was immediately flooded by people wanting the test. “They wanted to know, if my dad died from suicide, is my son at risk?” he says….

The bigger problem, says Dracheva, is that there are simply not enough brains of suicide victims to study. Unlike studies of diabetes or schizophrenia, where scientists can call on thousands or tens of thousands of patients, suicide studies remain small, and their findings much more tentative.

It’s because they don’t have DNA from enough people who committed suicide that researchers, including those at Hopkins and Max Planck, have had to try connecting the dots between DNA and whether or not people have suicidal thoughts. Yet there’s no straight line between the contemplation of suicide and actually doing it.

Of the more than 38,000 suicides in this country, over 30,000 are by men, yet the suicide studies remain small? Why?


cross-posted from Dr. Helen

image illustration via shutterstock /  Youjin Jung

Helen Smith is a psychologist specializing in forensic issues in Knoxville, Tennessee, and blogs at Dr. Helen.

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All Comments   (3)
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Only once.
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
Four generations of only-males in my family suicided, from my brother on back. I have a hard time believing there's no genetic component.
28 weeks ago
28 weeks ago Link To Comment
A predisposition to suicide might be inheritable, but we could only determine that scientifically by studying persons who have killed themselves, and then looking at their progeny, all while maintaining a control group of persons who have somehow pledged -- enforceably, at that -- not to try to kill themselves. I fear such a study would be considered tasteless. Atop that, only a government would fund it, as the marketing possibilities would be nil. At any rate, suicide isn't nearly as reliably inheritable as childlessness, which is arguably the greater problem.
28 weeks ago
28 weeks ago Link To Comment
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