SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah Health researchers have identified some genetic factors that may increase a person's risk of dying by suicide, according to the results of a newly published study.
Variants in four genes — known as APH1B, AGBL2, SP110 and SUCLA2 — were identified as being noticeably associated with suicide risk, according to the study published in late October in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Molecular Psychiatry.
The findings strengthen existing research linking genetics and suicide, and could have implications leading to "new treatments for those who suffer," said Dr. Douglas Gray, the senior author of the study and a professor of psychiatry at the U.
Using the statistical resources of the Utah Population Database, U. researchers studied 43 extended families that, over the course of several generations, exhibited high suicide risk. Gene variants determined to be prevalent in these families were then tested for their frequency in a generalized sample of 1,300 suicides in Utah for which DNA was available.
In addition to the four genes that were determined to be being strongly associated with suicide risk, the study found another 207 genes that did not show as strong of a statistical connection but at least indicated they "warrant further analysis to understand their potential role in people who die by suicide," U. Health science writer Stacy Kish said in a release.
Of those 207 genes identified, 18 have previously been linked to suicide risk in other scientific studies, according to Kish.
U. psychiatry professor Hilary Coon, first author of the paper published in Molecular Psychiatry, said there is considerable value in using suicide data from large extended families across generations, because they share genetic traits but not necessarily environmental factors that can also have an effect on suicidal behavior.
Close relatives are more likely to "also share all kinds of other things that might be risk factors" besides genetics, Coon said, such as financial troubles, toxic exposures in their physical environment or social stressors.
Coon believes the study findings point to a future in which a person's genetic information can give them a useful heads up to their suicide risk, helping them "be more diligent in making sure (they're) getting access to care."
"For folks that maybe have some of the genetics that expose them to this, it's hopeful, it's empowering" to have the information, Coon said. "You can take measures to minimize your risk."
She cautions that a person's genetic makeup, if it predisposes them to suicide risk, should not be viewed fatalistically.
"It's going to interact with a whole lot of other stuff," Coon said, such as the "choices that you make and things you're exposed to."
She compared it to genetic predispositions in some families for obesity.
"You might know this (risk) kind of runs in your family to put on more pounds. It doesn't mean that you're necessarily going to be obese," Coon said.
What it is about the four gene variations that specifically influence a person to be more likely to die by suicide will be much more difficult to discover, compared to the work that went into identifying them in the first place, Coon said.
"There's a lot more work to find out exactly what that mechanism is … that results in a behavioral change," she said.
All information from the Utah Population Database that was used in the research was de-identified to protect subjects' confidentiality, Coon said. Intermountain Healthcare, as well as pharmaceutical group Janssen Research & Development, also participated in carrying out the study.
Utah has the fifth-highest suicide rate among all 50 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy research group, reported this year that the suicide rate in Utah jumped from 15.8 per 100,000 in 1999 to 24.2 per 100,000 in 2016, increasing among every age group.
Among Utahns ages 10 to 17, the number of suicides were more than four times higher in 2017 than they were in 2007, according to data kept by the Utah Department of Health. The department also said this year that Utah teenagers are reporting increasing rates of depression and suicide attempts.
Anyone who is considering suicide or self-harm, or who knows someone who is, can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the hotline operated at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute at the U. by calling 801-587-3000. Both are operational 24/7.