For the first time, researchers are beginning to understand the genetics of suicide attempts.
In a new study this year, VA researchers compared the genes of veterans who attempted suicide with the genes of veterans without any reports of a suicide attempt. A study like this had never been done before. What has been discovered may one day help doctors better control suicidal veterans and prevent attempts in the first place.
Here’s what they found.
Ancestry and suicide risk may share genetic links
Looking at the genes of 14,089 veterans who reported a suicide attempt, several genetic “markers” or points in their genome stood out for researchers who did not appear in the nearly 400,000 veterans without reports of suicide attempts in their medical records.
Many of these suspect genes were present in veterans of various racial and ethnic origins. But the researchers also discovered genetic markers that appear to carry a greater risk of suicide attempts in some groups than in others. Some of these ancestry-specific genes have been found in African American, European-American, Asian-American, and Hispanic-American.
“Genetic suicide risk studies in the past haven’t had enough participants to look at race and ethnicity,” said Jean Beckham, one of the study’s researchers who practices and also teaches psychiatry at Duke University. “What we have learned will help us better identify the people most at risk of suicide and propose specific interventions for their genes, their background and recent life events.”
Insomnia and low oxytocin levels can be risk factors
While the researchers in the study looked beyond veterans’ genes and their medical history, as well as information gleaned from lifestyle surveys, two other findings emerged.
Among the study veterans who reported a suicide attempt, many also described severe sleep problems such as insomnia. The more severe the sleep disorder, the more veterans reported a suicide attempt.
VA researchers also found that those who attempted suicide had a harder time absorbing an important hormone called oxytocin. This natural hormone helps us with feelings of bonding and trust. For this reason it is often called the “love hormone”. Previous research among the civilian population found that less oxytocin was linked to more suicide intentions and attempts. VA research supports this finding even in veterans.
What does this mean for you?
With this growing body of knowledge, doctors may someday be able to offer genetic tests to identify the risk of a suicide attempt. They may also be able to better screen you for suicide risk based on previously unknown risk factors, such as insomnia or difficult life events, which appear to have genetic links to suicide.
Ultimately, the goal is to make sure veterans get the right care at the right time to prevent suicide attempts in the first place. Research like this will help make it a reality.
How can you help?
Veterans in these studies were enrolled in the Million Veteran Program (MVP), VA’s largest research effort and one of the largest in the world on genes and health. When veterans join MVP, they agree to make their health and genetic information available to approved researchers to study health and disease in veterans.
Thanks to over 900,000 veterans in MVP, we understand the genetics of suicide risk better than ever. This is just the beginning of what our research has to offer.
Veterans data in MVP has already supported the largest genetic studies to date on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depression, heart disease, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, one of the most common forms of liver disease. chronic in the United States. Other areas we are researching include tinnitus, cancer, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and Gulf War disease.
Make a difference for veterans. Join the Million Veteran program today.
To learn more and register, visit mvp.va.gov or call 866-441-6075. You do not need to receive VA health care to enroll.
Are you a veteran in crisis or worried about one? You are not alone! The Veterans Crisis Line is here for you. You don’t need to be enrolled in VA benefits or health care to get connected. Dial 988 then press 1.