A Blood Test for Suicide

May 2, 2014

By Medical Discovery News

The 10th leading cause of death in America is completely preventable – suicide.  In 2010, 38,364 people died by suicide, more than chronic liver disease, septicemia, and Parkinson’s disease.

While strongly linked to depression, there are not always clear warning signs that someone is about to commit suicide. Unlike a viral or bacterial infection where there can be a number of signs like changes in body temperature, white blood cells, and signaling molecules, there is no simple clinical test to diagnose suicidal tendencies. Now, new research is working toward a blood test using biomarkers that may identify those likely to commit suicide. 

Biomarkers are biological materials that are seen under specific conditions. For example, during a viral infection proteins called cytokines are produced by the human body to help defend cells and tissues from the virus. Identifying these proteins is a signature of viral infection. The challenge is that these signatures change over the course of the infection and different viruses can produce different signatures. Scientists have been working extensively to use this concept of biomarkers to help with the early detection of other diseases from cancer to Alzheimer’s. 

Researchers at the University of Indiana want to design a simple blood test to detect a specific biomarker to identify those who might be at risk for suicide. They have been looking for protein biomarkers that can distinguish different psychological states. For example, can specific biomarkers tell if someone with bipolar disorder is in a high or low mood? In this recent study, researchers looked for biomarkers in individuals contemplating suicide. Every three to six months, they interviewed and drew blood from their subjects – 75 men with bipolar disorder – and rated their risk of suicide from low to high. Several proteins in the blood varied with these mood swings but one in particular caught researchers’ attention. The protein SAT1 was present in all of those with high indications of suicidal thoughts. SAT1 plays a role in the body’s response to stressful situations.

They then tested suicide victims, grouping them by age and gender, and found high levels of SAT1 in all of them. Finally, they took blood samples regularly from about 80 men with either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The study showed higher SAT1 levels in those who were later hospitalized for suicidal behavior. The presence of elevated SAT1 was more than 80 percent predictive of hospitalization. Overall, these are promising results.

SAT1 is not an absolute signature for suicide because many things that can affect its levels. And like any complex behavior, there are a multitude of factors involved. Other biomarkers will need to be identified to create a biosignature for suicide. But this is an exciting discovery that may be used to prevent the tragic deaths of many people in the future.   

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An Update on Mad King George

By Medical Discovery News

June 23, 2012

King George III

Before the planet Uranus was given its present-day name, it was called Georgium Sidus, after King George III of Great Britain. Not only was King George a patron of the sciences, under his rule slavery was abolished in England and the country’s Industrial Revolution began. Despite these significant contributions, he’s most remembered for losing America, and for being the Mad King.

A 1994 movie, “The Madness of King George,” depicted the court intrigue surrounding the King’s illness and his son’s maneuvering to become regent and rule the kingdom. In the film, the cause of the King’s mental state is suggested as intermittent porphyria, which has been an accepted diagnosis among many scientists.

Now a new study disputes this claim. TJ Peters and A Beveridge reevaluated King George’s medical records and believe Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter based the porphyria diagnosis on an incomplete review of historical records. They are a mother and son, both psychiatrists, who studied health accounts of the King in the 1960s and theorized he had acute or variegate porphyria.

Porphyria disorders are a rare hereditary disease, which is the inability to make a key component of the oxygen-carrying molecule called heme.  People with porphyria are missing enzymes that produce heme molecules, which creates the build-up of a precursor biochemical called porphyrins. This can result in abdominal pain, muscle weakness, nervous system deficits, and personality changes. The disease lasts a lifetime and acute attacks and symptoms can appear and disappear over many years.

Those who believe porphyria caused King George’s mental problems point to the drugs and treatments he was given as being partially responsible. Many of those medications contained arsenic, a poison that scientists found in high levels when they tested the King’s hair.

But Peters and Beveridge believe neither medication nor porphyria are to blame. They believe the King’s mania was more likely symptomatic of a recurring bipolar disorder. The researchers examined medical records along with journals from his caretakers and were able to document four bouts of mental illness. His psychiatrists, called “mad doctors” at the time, treated King George and documented these episodes of psychosis. The first happened when he was 50, and then he spent the last ten years of his life suffering chronic mania and dementia.

The researchers further speculate King George’s other health problems may have contributed to his mental decline. At 70 he was blind from cataracts and thought to be increasingly deaf. The isolating effect of these lost senses may have contributed to his eventual chronic mania.  Records also show the king’s favorite daughter, Amelia, died when he was 70. By the end of that year he was declared permanently insane and lived in seclusion at Windsor Castle until his death at 81 years old.

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