Brain serotonin levels as a predictor of suicide has been the
subject of intense research scrutiny over the past several years,
with scientists trying to find easily accessible markers so that
the neurotransmitter's levels might someday be readily measured
in clinical settings.
One of the leading investigators of this biological indicator
is Australian-born J. John Mann, M.D., professor of psychiatry
at Columbia University and chief of the department of neuroscience
at New York State Psychiatric Institute, who recently presented
current knowledge on the subject to a packed room at the historic
Harvard Club of New York City.
The evening event, hosted by the American Suicide Foundation
and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University,
was a prelude to the foundation's annual Lifesavers Dinner held
the following night at the Waldorf-Astoria. There, Mann-in addition
to former governor Mario Cuomo and actress Heather Locklear-received
Preceding Mann's Harvard Club lecture, two new researchers funded
by the foundation briefly discussed their ongoing studies. Dorothy
E. Grice, M.D., postdoctoral research fellow in child psychiatry
at the Yale Child Study Center, talked about exploring genetic
roots of abnormal levels of serotonin that are present in suicidal
teenagers. Susan I. Wolk, M.D., research fellow in anxiety and
affective disorders at New York State Psychiatric Institute and
Columbia University, outlined a study of serotonin tests as predictors
of suicide in a cohort of patients formerly treated for major
depression while they were children.
Mann's talk, titled "The Neurobiology of Suicide," reviewed
different tests that characterize chemical abnormalities found
in the brains of people who carried out serious suicide attempts
or successfully committed suicide. He discussed his research group's
efforts to validate these tests and move them out of the laboratory
and into clinical practice.
Showing a slide depicting a graph of suicide and suicide attempts,
Mann said rates of attempts to completions are about 10 to 1,
depending on the study.
"With 30,000 suicides a year-the eighth leading cause of
death in the U.S.-and 300,000 attempts annually, this gives you
an idea of the magnitude of the problem," Mann pointed out.
Mann J, McBride A, Brown R, et al. Relationship between central
and peripheral serotonin indexes in depressed and suicidal psychiatric
inpatients. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1992;49:442-446.