These four ferocious genes increase the risk of suicide in humans

These genes are also associated with psychological disorders and substance abuse.
Rupendra Brahambhatt
Depression and loneliness concept.
Depression and loneliness concept.

Baramyou0708/iStock 

Do you know that every 55 minutes, five people commit suicide in the U.S.? When we take a look at the rate at which suicides happening globally, the figures are more shocking — every 40 seconds, there is at least one person taking his or her life in some part of the world. 

More than 800,000 people commit suicide every year. That’s more people than the combined population of countries like Maldives and Saint Lucia. A person commits suicide not because of one but many factors, and there seems to be no way to figure out if a person is going to take his or her life. 

This is also because when we talk about suicide or self-harming behavior, we only consider external factors and rarely discuss the genetics behind them. A new study reveals that suicidal tendency in humans is not just related to social, psychological, financial, and personal factors but is also linked to our genes. 

Interestingly, a team of researchers at Duke University Medical Center has identified four genes that can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and actions in an individual. While explaining the significance of these genes in evaluating suicide risk, one of the lead authors and professor of Psychiatry at Duke, Nathan Kimbrel said:

“While genes account for a small amount of risk relative to other factors, we need to better understand the biological pathways that underly a person’s risk for engaging in suicidal behavior. Suicide is the fourth-leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 29 years old. The more we know, the better we can prevent these tragic deaths.”

The four genes linked to suicide in humans

Kimbrel and his team didn’t just right away spot the genes that increase suicidal behavior in humans. They conducted a large-scale genome analysis. They collected genetic and medical records of 633,778 ex-US military servicemen. After examining the data, they found 121,211 individuals that had demonstrated suicidal behavior in the past.

The remaining 512,567 subjects that didn’t have any records of self-harm actions were referred to as controls. The researchers then performed genomic analysis of the blood samples of the members of the first group and came across various genetic factors that were possibly linked to the self-harm behavior. 

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Among all such factors, they pinpointed four genes that were found to be strongly linked to suicidal behavior in veterans. The four genes are ESR1 (Estrogen receptor 1), DRD2 (Dopamine receptor D2), DCC (Netrin 1 receptor), and TRAF3 (TNF Receptor Associated Factor 3).

DRD2 is associated with mood swings, alcohol abuse, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and various other risky behaviors that increase suicidal tendencies in an individual. Estrogen receptor on the other side is related to factors like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. DCC gene in humans is linked to psychological issues, substance abuse, and impaired intellectual development.

One of the most common suicidal behavior is isolation. The researchers found the TRAF3 gene responsible for anti-social behavior in the subjects. It also causes mental problems such as bipolar disorder and ADHD. 

It is important to note that although these genes shape suicide-related behaviors in humans, they are not entirely responsible for a person committing suicide. They just contribute to the personal, social, and other external factors that affect the life of an individual.  

“It’s important to note that these genes do not predestine anyone to problems, but it’s also important to understand that there could be heightened risks, particularly when combined with life events,” said Professor Kimbrel. 

Why is it important to acknowledge the genetics of suicide?

This is not the first research work that highlights the genetics behind suicide. Many previous studies indicate that individuals who have a history of suicidal behavior in their families are more likely to commit suicide than others. Children whose parents commit suicide are also at greater risk of engaging in self-harm behaviors.

Some researchers even claim that genetic factors account for 50 percent of suicidal behavior in humans. However, there is no formula to clearly measure the extent upto which genes affect suicidal tendencies in humans. 

Also, apart from the four discussed genes, there could be numerous other genetic factors responsible for increasing the risk of suicide in humans. For instance, in 2018, a team of researchers from the University of Utah School of Medicine identified 207 genes that were found to be associated with self-harming behavior in humans.  

We can not control the external factors and life situations of a person, but the knowledge of suicide-related genes could help us predict the way a person might harm himself or herself in the future. The more we know about these genes, the more we are in a position to understand the root cause of self-harming behavior.

Maybe in the future, with advanced genetic engineering, we might be able to prevent the transfer of suicidal genetic factors from parents to children, but to do so, we first need to identify and understand these factors.

The truth is every person who is thinking of taking his or her life can be saved. All he or she needs is some help, care, and support. If you are also experiencing suicidal thoughts or if you know someone who is going through a rough patch in life. You can help them via websites like Suicide.org or by calling the Suicide and crisis helpline number 988.   

The study is published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.