Significant shared heritability underlies suicide attempt and clinically predicted probability of attempting suicide

Mol Psychiatry. 2020 Oct;25(10):2422-2430. doi: 10.1038/s41380-018-0326-8. Epub 2019 Jan 4.


Suicide accounts for nearly 800,000 deaths per year worldwide with rates of both deaths and attempts rising. Family studies have estimated substantial heritability of suicidal behavior; however, collecting the sample sizes necessary for successful genetic studies has remained a challenge. We utilized two different approaches in independent datasets to characterize the contribution of common genetic variation to suicide attempt. The first is a patient reported suicide attempt phenotype asked as part of an online mental health survey taken by a subset of participants (n = 157,366) in the UK Biobank. After quality control, we leveraged a genotyped set of unrelated, white British ancestry participants including 2433 cases and 334,766 controls that included those that did not participate in the survey or were not explicitly asked about attempting suicide. The second leveraged electronic health record (EHR) data from the Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC, 2.8 million patients, 3250 cases) and machine learning to derive probabilities of attempting suicide in 24,546 genotyped patients. We identified significant and comparable heritability estimates of suicide attempt from both the patient reported phenotype in the UK Biobank (h2SNP = 0.035, p = 7.12 × 10-4) and the clinically predicted phenotype from VUMC (h2SNP = 0.046, p = 1.51 × 10-2). A significant genetic overlap was demonstrated between the two measures of suicide attempt in these independent samples through polygenic risk score analysis (t = 4.02, p = 5.75 × 10-5) and genetic correlation (rg = 1.073, SE = 0.36, p = 0.003). Finally, we show significant but incomplete genetic correlation of suicide attempt with insomnia (rg = 0.34-0.81) as well as several psychiatric disorders (rg = 0.26-0.79). This work demonstrates the contribution of common genetic variation to suicide attempt. It points to a genetic underpinning to clinically predicted risk of attempting suicide that is similar to the genetic profile from a patient reported outcome. Lastly, it presents an approach for using EHR data and clinical prediction to generate quantitative measures from binary phenotypes that can improve power for genetic studies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biological Specimen Banks
  • Electronic Health Records
  • Female
  • Genome-Wide Association Study*
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Machine Learning*
  • Male
  • Mental Health
  • Phenotype
  • Probability*
  • Risk Factors
  • Suicidal Ideation
  • Suicide, Attempted / statistics & numerical data*
  • Tennessee
  • United Kingdom
  • White People / genetics