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Could a blood test predict suicide risk?

Posted at 1:53 AM, Aug 08, 2014
and last updated 2014-08-09 15:02:52-04

Could a syringe of your blood determine whether you're at a higher risk of committing suicide?

RTV6 sister-station 7NEWS' Anchor Eric Kahnert investigates the findings of a new study released by researchers at The Johns Hopkins University -- and looks into the potential impact on service members returning from overseas.

"Let's start with why this conversation is so important," Kahnert says. "The latest data shows Colorado has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. Around a thousand Coloradans take their lives each year."

This new study suggests alterations to a single gene might help predict suicide risk. And you can find the results just by drawing blood.

"We knew he was suicidal," Sally Spencer-Thomas says of her brother, Carson Spencer

"He did disclose that to us, but what he also said is he would never do it," Sally tells 7NEWS.

But in 2004, Carson did take his life. He suffered from mental illness.

"Ten years since his passing, I do feel hopeful," says Sally, who now heads up The Carson J. Spencer Foundation, a suicide prevention organization in Denver.

"Anytime we have an advancement in science in the field of suicide prevention that increases the potential that we can identify them early and link them to care is exciting for all of us," Sally says.

Using blood samples, Johns Hopkins researchers found the alteration of the SKA2 gene was linked to stress reactions.

"This study helps us understand how a genetic influence could operate on stress response," says Dr. Michael H. Allen, a psychiatry professor at the University of Colorado at Denver.

But Allen says it's a big leap from there to an actual suicide risk.

"You have to both want to die and be capable of committing the act," he said.

We asked Professor Allen to weigh in on speculation the test could help military members returning from duty overseas -- a group with a higher suicide risk.

"Let's say you have a positive test. Does that mean you don't get promoted?" Allen asked. "Does that mean you get held back from combat in the future? It could have a deleterious effect on your career. Does it mean you get more resources? Well, that could be good," he added.

Sally also has reservations.

"In the wrong hands, a finding like this could be used to push people away, push people out," she said.

Even the Johns Hopkins researchers admit a true blood test to gauge a person's suicide risk may be at least a decade away.

This study looked at hundreds of blood samples. Professor Allen says a much larger sample is required to be more accurate and legitimate.

Bottom line -- this study is just scratching the surface and more research is needed.

If you have questions about suicide, call this number 1-800-273-talk.