Genetic Risk Factors for Suicide Attempt in U.S. Veterans

Published: Monday, October 18, 2021, 1:30 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time

Media Contact: Kara Flynn, 202.257.8424,

ROCKVILLE, MD – More than 800,000 people die each year from suicide worldwide, and the rate of suicide among U.S. military veterans is now 1.5 times higher than the rate among civilians. In addition, for each adult who dies by suicide, there may be more than 20 others who make an attempt. As with many conditions, genetics provides one clue on the tragedy of suicide, but there are many other factors that may provide explanations for this phenomenon. New analyses presented at the American Society of Human Genetics 2021 Annual Meeting offers new information on how genetics may contribute to the multi-faceted roots of these tragic numbers.

Using data from the Million Veteran Program, a team of researchers including Elizabeth Hauser, PhD, a statistical geneticist at Duke University and the Durham VA, conducted a genome-wide association study comparing U.S. veterans with a documented history of suicide attempts to U.S. veterans with no documented history of such thoughts or behaviors. Analyses conducted identified biologic factors underlying increased risk of suicide attempts.

The goal of the Million Veteran Program is to learn more about how genes affect health and to use this information to improve the lives of veterans and, ultimately, the general population. Since launching in 2011, more than 840,000 veterans have participated by volunteering their genetic and health data.

The analyses revealed 30 biologic pathways associated with an increased risk of suicide attempts. Among the pathways implicated is oxytocin signaling, which plays a role in social bonding and feelings of well-being, and multiple stress pathways, including cortisol synthesis and secretion and blood pressure regulating pathways. Other pathways identified in individuals with a history of suicide attempts were related to the internal biologic clock known as circadian rhythm. It is known that disruptions of circadian rhythm profoundly affect mood, and Dr. Hauser and her team found that in the Million Veteran Program cohort, individuals with a history of suicide attempts reported more sleep problems than controls.

Additionally, in a related abstract presented by the leader of the suicide GWAS, Allison Ashley-Koch, PhD, also at Duke University, the researchers conducted a large genetic study of suicide attempts between the Million Veteran Program and the International Suicide Genetics Consortium, a dataset of civilians. This analysis, the largest genetic study of suicide attempts to date, found eight regions in the genome of particular interest, and some degree of overlap with the veteran findings.

“In addition to the genetic risk factors being consistent across the veteran findings, they appear to also extend to non-veterans, as well,” says Dr. Ashley-Koch.

The research team is planning to expand their analyses by investigating suicide deaths and suicidal ideation (thinking about suicide but not acting on it).

“Our ultimate goal is to look at the whole spectrum, from suicidal ideation to suicide attempts to suicide death, and find genetic risk factors for each of these,” says Dr. Hauser. “There is a lot of potential for these results to contribute to our understanding of why people attempt suicide and help us identify risk factors and avenues for treatment.”

Media Interest: To learn more about Dr. Hauser’s work or set up an interview, please contact to coordinate.

Reference: Hauser, E.R., Qin, X.J., Ashley-Koch, A.E., Hauser, M.A., McMahon, B.H., Lindquist, J.H., Madduri, R., Huffman, J.E., Kimbrel, N.A., Beckham, J.C., and the MVP Suicide Exemplar Workgroup. (October 18, 2021). Abstract: Pathways implicated in risk for suicide attempts in the Million Veterans Program. Presented at the American Society of Human Genetics 2021 Annual Meeting.

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About the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG)

Founded in 1948, the American Society of Human Genetics is the primary professional membership organization for human genetics specialists worldwide. Its nearly 8,000 members include researchers, academicians, clinicians, laboratory practice professionals, genetic counselors, nurses, and others with an interest in human genetics. The Society serves scientists, health professionals, and the public by providing forums to: (1) share research results through the ASHG Annual Meeting and in The American Journal of Human Genetics and Human Genetics and Genomics Advances; (2) advance genetic research by advocating for research support; (3) educate current and future genetics professionals, health care providers, advocates, policymakers, educators, students, and the public about all aspects of human genetics; and (4) promote genetic services and support responsible social and scientific policies. For more information, visit:

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