Genetic changes caused by environmental factors linked to suicide risk

Researchers have linked genetic changes in the so-called CRH gene, which affects the regulation of the body’s stress system, to suicide risk and psychiatric illnesses. The study of epigenetic changes in the body’s hormonal stress system has shown that stress-related changes in the CRH gene are linked to both serious suicide attempts in adults and psychiatric illnesses in adolescents.

The research study, which is a collaboration between researchers from Umeå University, Karolinska Institutet and Uppsala University, was published in the journal EBioMedicine.

Previous studies have indicated an overactive stress system in people with an increased risk of suicide. In the current study, the researchers report that epigenetic changes in the CRH gene, which are linked to severe suicide attempts in adults, could also be found in adolescents at high risk for psychiatric illness.

Recently published research results show that serious suicide attempts lead to a greatly reduced lifespan with an increased risk of suicide and a risk of mortality from natural causes, especially in adolescents. Over the past ten years, it has become twice as common for Swedish teenagers aged 10 to 17 to suffer from psychiatric illnesses. An alarming increase also in young adults can be observed. This according to a report recently published by the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare.

In the study, researchers looked at 88 people who had attempted suicide. Participants were divided into high- and low-risk groups based on the severity of their suicidal behavior. Using blood samples from participants, epigenetic markers in the form of DNA methylation in genes related to the stress system were analyzed. In the next step, the epigenetic changes discovered in the CRH gene were studied in blood samples from two other cohort studies including 129 and 93 adolescents aged 14 to 17, respectively. The adolescents were divided into high- and low-risk groups based on their assessment of their psychiatric symptoms. The results show that epigenetic modifications of the CRH gene were more frequent in the group of adolescents with an increased risk of psychiatric illness.

“Because psychiatric illness is a serious and growing public health problem, it is important that we consider early signs of psychiatric illness and suicidal behavior in suicide prevention,” says Jussi Jokinen, professor of psychiatry at Umeå University who led the current study.

“Our environment affects our gene expression, which is generally referred to as epigenetic change. Although we are not able to draw distinct parallels between the results of these cohort studies, our results still highlight the importance an optimal stress regulation system for psychiatric illnesses.

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Materials provided by University of Umea. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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