Suicide Found To
Be Linked To Defective Gene
The Canadian Press
TORONTO (CP) - Confirming a belief that self-destructiveness runs in families, scientists from the Royal Ottawa Hospital have found a link between a gene mutation and suicide.
The discovery, to be published next month in the American Journal of Medical Genetics, may lead to a "suicide test" that would identify patients at risk, the National Post reported Friday.
But it could also open a philosophical debate on how this dark fragment of personality would be used in an age when medical records are kept electronically and are difficult to keep confidential.
The researchers found a mutation in the gene encoding for the serotonin 5-HT2A receptor, a protein that transmits brain signals, which they say more than doubles the risk of suicidal behaviour in those who carry it.
"Individuals who carry the (mutation) are at higher risk when a situation that triggers their suicidal tendencies will occur," neurobiologist Dr. Pavel Hrdina, who co-wrote the landmark study, told the Post.
The study looked at patients suffering from major depression, so its results do not apply to healthy people who may attempt suicide as a one-time "cry for help" or to gain attention.
However, the researchers say it's possible the mutation may also be linked to the elevated risk of suicide among schizophrenics.
People have long believed that mental illness and suicide are inherited.
When model-actress Margaux Hemingway committed suicide in 1996, it gained attention not only because she was a celebrity and the granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway, but because it marked four generations of suicide in the famous American family.
A diagnostic test for this trait would identify people in need of medical help, including gene therapy.
Suicide is the world's ninth leading cause of death.
But the mutation could also prove to be a "Scarlet Letter" whose presence makes it impossible to buy life insurance, fly an airplane, or even hold a position of trust in society.
"There are huge issues of privacy and discrimination here, and they just get ratcheted up because you're talking about psychiatric illness," say Dr. Kay Jamison at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
(National Post) © The Canadian Press, 2000


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