San Diego/ Science, Tech & Medicine
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Published on December 15, 2023
Blood Test Breakthrough, UC San Diego Experts Reveal Biomarkers for Suicide Risk in Depression SufferersSource: TritonsRising, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A groundbreaking study led by scientists at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine may have found a way to streamline mental health care by identifying biomarkers that signal suicidal thoughts in individuals with depression, UC San Diego reported. A recent study discovered that specific compounds in the blood could indicate higher risk factors for suicidal ideation in those suffering from treatment-refractory depression.

According to the research published today in Translational Psychiatry, the prevalence of major depressive disorder in the U.S. is a significant concern, with over 16.1 million adults affected and an annual cost of $210 billion. The UC San Diego researchers found that metabolic changes in the body, differentiated by sex, have a potential link to depression and suicidal tendencies. The wide-reaching effects of these findings could lead to advancements in how we approach mental health treatment, potentially saving lives by addressing the issue at a metabolic level.

In a statement obtained by UC San Diego, Robert Naviaux, MD, PhD, a professor in the Department of Medicine, Pediatrics and Pathology, explained that modern technologies like metabolomics allow for new insights into cellular communication through biochemistry. Naviaux's team analyzed blood from 99 participants with severe depression and suicidal ideation alongside healthy controls, identifying five unique biomarkers in each sex that could predict the risk of suicidality.

"If we have 100 people who either don’t have depression or who have depression and suicidal ideation, we would be able to correctly identify 85–90 of those at greatest risk based on five metabolites in males and another five metabolites in females," Naviaux said. Among the findings, mitochondrial dysfunction marked a consistent thread across both sexes. Mitochondria, critical in generating cells' energy currency ATP, also communicate distress when their function is impaired, potentially leading to suicidal behavior.

Interpreting these metabolic deficiencies could prompt personalized treatment plans that include supplements such as folate and carnitine. While these supplements aren't touted as cures, Naviaux sees potential for "nudging the metabolism in the right direction," which could make conventional treatments more effective. The implications of this research extend beyond depression, offering hope for concurrent chronic illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic fatigue syndrome, which are often associated with depression and subsequently increase suicide risk.

The UC San Diego study's collaborators span several institutions, including the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and McMaster University, with support from organizations like the National Institutes of Health and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.