#2: The Suicide Chromosome?

“There’s no way emotional and mental health disorders are biological in nature. It’s all in your head. So come on, pull up those bootstraps and get moving!”

Hold on there, smarty-pants. Seems the folks at Johns Hopkins may have something to say about that.

The news was just published in Molecular Psychiatry. A team of Johns Hopkins scientists have I.D.’d a small region of chromosome 2 that’s associated with increased risk for suicide attempts.

The work was funded by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

What’s a Chromosome?

Without going overboard, we need to take-in a bit of biology to better understand the research results. A chromosome is a single piece of coiled DNA found in all cells, containing many genes and other goodies. Oh, DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all living organisms.

We human-types have 23 pairs of chromosomes. So that means there are 46 per cell.

Chromosome 2 is one of the 23 pairs and we typically have two copies (in case we lose one, I guess). It’s the second largest human chromosome. By the way, it’s thought to play a significant role in intelligence.

Interestingly, diseases related to genes located on chromosome 2 include – autism, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS – Lou Gehrig’s Disease); and now, suicidal behavior.

The Research

The small region on chromosome 2 the study cites contains four genes. One of these is the ACP1 gene. What motivated the research team to pursue their work was finding higher than normal levels of the protein associated with this gene in the brains of people who had completed suicide.

Isn’t it fascinating that the very same ACP1 protein is believed to influence the very same biological pathway as lithium? And we know lithium has antisuicidal effects.

Johns Hopkins’ Virginia L. Willour, Ph.D., and her team, went on to study DNA samples from some 2,700 adults enduring bipolar disorder. Nearly half of the subjects had a history of suicide attempts.

It seems that subjects with one copy of a genetic variant in this “small region on chromosome 2” were 1.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide. Those with two copies were almost three times as likely!

If that wasn’t enough, the team was able to replicate the findings in yet another group of samples – using the DNA from more than 3,000 people with bipolar disorder.

The Take-Away?

Suicide is estimated to take the lives of 1.4% of the population of the U.S. alone. 4.6% have attempted suicide at least once. Alarmingly, amongst those enduring bipolar disorder, 47% have suicidal thoughts – 25% make an attempt.

Those numbers are unacceptable and we need to do all we can to bring them down. And with studies such as this, along with new research and drug development, we can do just that.

For example, Dr. Willour is calling for new studies that will determine the exact biological workings through which the genetic risk factors we discussed actually ramp-up the risk for suicidal behavior.

Final Comments

Coming to understand the foundations of the emotional and mental health disorders is tough business. After all, we’re dealing with the most complicated and miraculous three-pound mass known to man/womankind.

When I see research like this I become very hopeful. It tells me an effort is being made to eradicate unnecessary suffering.

As slow as the progress may be, if we keep pushing we’ll get there.

And for all of the smarty-pants’ out there who don’t believe the emotional and mental health disorders are biological in nature – get over it!