Columbia University Medical Center
NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital The University Hospital of Columbia and Cornell
March 23, 2009

The poet Sylvia Plath, who made a name for herself through prose and poetry that conveyed a sense of depression and suicidal tendencies, famously died by asphyxiating herself in an oven in 1963.

The recent reported suicide of her son, marine biologist Nicholas Hughes, brings to light a known psychiatric phenomenon: the heredity of suicidal behavior.

A first-degree relative -- a parent, sibling or child -- of a person who has committed suicide is four to six times more likely to attempt or complete a suicide, said Dr. David Brent, psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Studies on twins have shown that suicidal behavior is between 30 and 50 percent due to heritable factors, he said. Suicide victims' biological relatives who were adopted away also show an increased risk of suicide, he said.

The data set shows that this brain surface thinning was present before these people developed mental problems, and was found in both children and grandchildren of depressed people, said Dr. Bradley Peterson, psychiatrist at Columbia University Medical Center and co-author of the study.

Researchers believe the cortical thinning causes depression by interfering with the processing of emotional stimuli, he said. A person with these brain abnormalities may benefit from therapy targeted at responding to social stimuli more appropriately, he said.

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