According to the latest research out of Johns Hopkins, a new blood test could predict a person’s risk for suicide through their DNA. The blood test would rely on genetics and offer many who are afflicted with mental illness and their doctors a new option in detecting suicidal behavior.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins discovered a gene, SKA2, that predicts how the brain responds to stress. The way the brains of some people respond to stress may provoke their suicidal feelings or actions, according to conclusions the researchers of this study arrived at after analyzing the data they had collected. Doctors previously relied on behavioral warning signs to treat suicidal patients, but had no physical evidence to indicate suicide risk prior to this study.
Determining a person’s risk could now be as simple as a blood test to alert a patient’s doctor to take appropriate action. Researchers are optimistic that this test may lower suicide rates by “identifying those people and intervening early enough to head off a catastrophe,” according to Zachary Kaminsky, lead researcher on this study and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at John Hopkins University of School Medicine.
The SKA2 gene was first noticed in a study of 150 brain scans of cadavers in a study of both healthy and mentally ill people. In the case of those who were both mentally ill and had killed themselves, a higher level of methylation was found along with reduced levels of SKA2. The methylation acts as a suppressant on the SKA2 gene, in effect turning the gene “off.”
Turning off the gene is what affects the person’s ability to deal with stress, and thus the tendency to commit suicide. SKA2 also deals with impulse control and inhibiting negative thoughts, which further compounds the problem.
The new blood test identified by Johns Hopkins researchers as a predictor of suicidal risk measures the SKA2 gene and indicates a person’s vulnerability to stress and anxiety.The test has an accuracy rate of 80 to 90 percent. The accuracy rate increases based on the severity of the problems of the person suffering. For the youngest participants of the study, the test has accuracy rates of up to 96 percent.
The medical community met the research with cautious optimism. The initial study was preliminary in nature and included only 550 participants. Further studies are needed, with larger populations of military personnel, besides civilians.
People in the military compose a group particularly vulnerable to stress. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States according to the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. That rate is 50 percent higher among active military members.
One of the authors of the study done by researchers at John Hopkins Univeristy, Dr. Zachary Kaminsky, stated, “Suicide is a major preventable public health problem, but we have been stymied in our prevention efforts because we have no consistent way to predict those who are at increased risk of killing themselves.” He hopes the test could be used in determining a patient’s need for hospitalization and other safety monitoring decisions. A blood test that predicts a person’s risk of committing suicide could keep many safe and ensure proper treatment.
By Stacey Wagner