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Could a blood test measure suicide risk?

The potential for a blood test to predict suicide risk has sparked much debate, with The Independent reporting that, "US study raises controversial prospect to identify people at risk"...

The potential for a blood test to predict suicide risk has sparked much debate, with The Independent reporting that a "US study raises controversial prospect to identify people at risk".

The news is based on the results of a study that aimed to identify biomarkers that could be used objectively to assess and track suicide risk. A biomarker is a biological marker, such as a genetic variant, that can be measured to indicate normal or abnormal biological processes.

Researchers identified biomarkers for suicide risk by analysing blood samples taken from a small group of men with bipolar disorder. Blood samples were taken when the men both reported having suicidal thoughts and when they did not.

The researchers looked at the expression process of specific genes, where information from the genes is used to make products such as proteins. They identified genes whose expression was different when people did not have suicidal thoughts and when people did have suicidal thoughts.

Of these, the expression of a gene called SAT1 was the strongest biomarker of suicidal behaviour and thinking. SAT1 levels were found to be high in a small group of men who had committed suicide. SAT1 levels were also able to differentiate the number of hospitalisations due to suicidal thoughts in groups of men with bipolar disorder or psychosis.

This small preliminary study in men raises the possibility that a biochemical test for suicide could be developed. But it is very difficult to see the possible applications of such a test in practice, even if it is found to be effective.

People who are thinking about suicide often tend to be secretive about their intentions, so it is hard to imagine that they would voluntarily attend "screening tests". Outside of those who are being treated compulsorily, this research seems to add little to the real-world problem of suicide prevention.  

Getting help

If you are feeling suicidal, there are people you can talk to who want to help:

  • speak to a friend, family member or someone you trust, as they may be able to help you calm down and find some breathing space
  • call the Samaritans' 24-hour support service on 08457 90 90 90
  • go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department and tell the staff how you are feeling
  • contact NHS 111
  • make an urgent appointment to see your GP

Read more about getting help if you're feeling suicidal.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Centre, Marion County Coroner's Office, Indianapolis, and The Scripps Research Institute, California. It was supported by the US National Institutes of Health Director's New Innovator Award and a Veterans Affairs Merit Award.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Molecular Psychiatry. It is open access, meaning that it is possible to download the research paper for free on the journal's website.

This story was well covered in both the Mail Online and The Independent. Both papers point out some of the study's limitations, such as the small sample size, the fact that it was only conducted in men, and the need for the findings to be replicated in other studies. They also both included commentary from independent experts on suicide prevention.

However, neither news organisation seemed to grasp the difficulties in finding a possible practical use for such a test. If a person expresses suicidal thoughts, the value of giving them a blood test to "confirm" whether or not they are at risk seems highly questionable. It also raises many safety concerns, including the possibility of false-negative results, where a person is discounted as a suicide risk because their blood test results don't tally.

Whether or not this test will be considered as a possible screening tool for people with a diagnosed mental health illness also raises a host of other questions. Some of these issues include how practical a "suicide test" is – would people who are feeling suicidal voluntarily attend a screening appointment?

 

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