Genetic research sheds new light on veteran suicide risk

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 reporting a suicide attempt. An investigation like this had never been done before. What was discovered may one day help doctors better screen veterans at risk for suicide and prevent attempted suicides in the first place.

This is what they found.

Ancestry and suicide risk may share genetic links

When looking at the genes of 14,089 veterans who reported a suicide attempt, several genetic “markers” or dots in their genome stood out to researchers that did not appear in the nearly 400,000 veterans with no reports of suicide attempt in their medical records.

Jean Beckham

Many of these suspect genes were present in veterans of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. But researchers also discovered genetic markers that appear to have a higher risk of suicide attempts in some groups than others. A few of these ancestry-specific genes were found in African-Americans, European-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics.

“Genetic studies of suicide risk in the past have not had enough participants to look at race and ethnicity,” said Jean Beckham, one of the study’s researchers who also practices psychiatry and teaches at Duke University. “What we’ve learned will help us better identify the people most at risk of committing suicide and devise interventions specific to their genes, background and recent life events.”

Insomnia and low levels of oxytocin may be risk factors

As researchers in the study looked beyond veterans’ genes and their medical histories, as well as information gathered from lifestyle surveys, two other findings stood out.

Among veterans in the study who reported a suicide attempt, many also described serious 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, oxytocin. This natural hormone helps us with feelings of bonding and trust. For this reason, it is often referred to as “the love hormone.” Previous research in the civilian population found that less oxytocin was associated with more suicidal intentions and attempts. VA’s research also supports that finding in veterans.

What does this mean to you?

With this growing body of knowledge, doctors may one day offer genetic testing to identify your risk of a suicide attempt. They may also be able to better screen you for suicide risks 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 ensure that veterans receive the right care at the right time to prevent suicide attempts in the first place. Research like this will help make that happen.

How can I help you?

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 in the field of 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 more than 900,000 veterans in MVP, we understand the genetics of suicide risk better than ever before. This is just the beginning of what our research has to offer.

Veteran data in MVP has already supported the largest genetic studies to date on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depression, heart disease and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, one of the most common forms of chronic liver disease in the United States. Other areas we are investigating are tinnitus, cancer, diabetes, chronic kidney disease and Gulf War Illness.

Make a difference for veterans. Join the Million Veteran Program today.

For more information and to sign up, visit mvp.va.gov or call 866-441-6075. You don’t need to get VA care to enroll.

Are you a veteran in crisis or concerned? 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 connect. Call 988 and then press 1.

Genetic research sheds new light on veteran suicide risk

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