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Can we diagnose suicide risk? Researchers say, maybe

Can we diagnose suicide risk? Researchers say, maybe

The emotional underpinnings associated with suicide might suggest that it is impossible to diagnose or identify those who might be at risk of taking their own lives. But new research indicates that it might be possible to do after all. And all it might take is a blood test.

The prospect of such a test becoming commonplace appears to be somewhat down the road yet. But the findings researchers have recorded so far leaves them optimistic that they are on track to developing a blood test that can accurately predict suicide risk and allow doctors to intervene earlier and save lives.

Of course, such a development would also set a new standard of care for doctors to meet and as New York readers likely know, violating standards of care is often at the root of medical malpractice claims. 

The way the lead author of this Johns Hopkins University study puts it, "We've identified a new player in suicide." And the researchers say that player is a mutation in a gene that affects the chemistry of how the brain reacts to stress. That gene is called SKA2.

Scientists say they first spotted the change when studying the brains of people after they had died. They looked at brains from both healthy people and those with mental illness and found that those who had committed suicide had less of the SKA2 gene.

They also found that the suicide group had higher levels of what's called methyl group chemicals. So they tested blood samples from about 550 living subjects and found higher methyl group chemical levels in patients who had attempted suicide or expressed suicidal thoughts.

From that, researchers created an analyzing method to assess suicide risk, ran all the previous samples through the model and found that it predicted risk with 80 to 90 percent accuracy. That's better than any similar study has achieved previously.

The researchers say they will now attempt to apply the methodology on samples from U.S. service people to see if their theory bears out.

No one is saying when a test might get through all the approval steps. Considering that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pegs suicide as the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S., however, most would surely agree approval can't come fast enough.

Source: The Daily Beast, "Researchers Have Created a New Blood Test to Predict Risk of Suicide," Brandy Zadrosny, July 30, 2014

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