Tag Archives: mental health

The Finno-Ugrian Suicide Hypothesis


The Finno-Ugrian peoples of Eurasia

What is the Finno-Ugrian Suicide Hypothesis?

Multiple lines of evidence indicate specific genetic contributions to suicidal behavior. In particular, geographic studies support the Finno-Ugrian Suicide Hypothesis, i.e., genetic differences between populations may partially account for geographic patterns of suicide prevalence. Specifically, within Europe the high suicide-rate nations constitute a contiguous J-shaped belt. The present research replicated and extended 2003 findings of Voracek, Fisher, and Marusic with new data. Across 37 European nations, an interaction term of squared latitude multiplied with longitude (quantifying the J-shaped belt) accounted for 32% of the cross-national variance in total suicide rates alone, while latitude accounted merely for 18% of variance over and above those. Refined analysis included regional data from countries critical for testing the hypothesis (89 regions of Belarus, western Russia, and the Ukraine) and yielded an even more clear-cut pattern (56% and 3.5%, respectively). These results are consistent with the Finno-Ugrian Suicide Hypothesis. Study limitations and directions for further research are discussed.

Some of you may be wondering who the mysterious Finno-Ugrians even are. They are simply a diverse ethno-linguistic group that is native to eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and Russia. The most well known are the Finns and Hungarians. In the map above, you can see their lesser known linguistic cousins scattered across much of Russia and northern Scandinavia.

The thing that is most remarkable about these peoples, besides the genetic isolation of some of the northern groups, is that they are among the few native Europeans whose mother tongue is not an Indo-European language. Almost everyone else with a long history in Europe is a speaker of an Indo-European language, like Italian, Russian, German, Greek, Spanish, and even English(some genes are said to be associated with the early spread of Indo-European languages, but that is beyond the scope of this post). No, it’s not because they are an extreme ethno-linguistic minority that Finno-Ugrians have a higher suicide rate.

The Finno-Ugrian Suicide Hypothesis suggests that genes that are unique to or occur more frequently among Finno-Ugrians predisposes them to suicide. For a long time, many researchers just assumed that the extreme northern environment many Finno-Ugrians live in, and social factors were the primary cause of their higher than average suicide rate. However, when researchers controlled for the environmental and social factors(comparing them to non-Finno-Ugrians living in the same environment), it became apparent that something genetic was making a significant contribution to their higher suicide rate. Of course, this is something that shows up in aggregate, and doesn’t render environmental or social factors meaningless for individuals.

While these genes tend to be mostly unique to speakers of Finno-Ugrian languages, some Russians and other Indo-Europeans in eastern Europe carry these genes. Russians also have a high suicide rate. This may be due to the Russians slowly assimilating many Finno-Ugrians over the centuries into the larger Russian ethnic group, as Russia expanded across northern Eurasia and Russified many different native ethnic groups. In other words, this means there are people who are Finno-Ugrian by blood who speak Russian or other non-Finno-Ugrian languages as their first and only language.

In part, I am fascinated by this because Linus Torvalds, the influential software engineer who created the kernel of the Linux/Android operating system I use is Finnish, besides, of course, my interest in genes and mental health. And Finland has also produced some amazing runners. They haven’t been able to find any Finno-Ugrian running genes though.

Why Finno-Ugrians have these “suicide” genes is a mystery(it is possible they have some advantage), but please don’t panic if you are Finno-Ugrian or know someone who is. Of course, we can’t change our genes(not yet), but hopefully, science will find better ways of treating mental disorders that lead many to suicide.

Vegetarians and mental disorders

One of the most common features on this site are posts about the health benefits of a vegetarian diet. In general, vegetarians are healthier than meat-eaters, though people who eat a Mediterranean or Paleo diet and minimize meat are about as healthy as vegetarians.

Truth be told, vegetarianism isn’t always associated with positive health outcomes. In fact, when it comes to mental health, vegetarianism may be more strongly correlated with mental disorders than meat-eating. According to Vegetarian diet and mental disorders: results from a representative community survey:


Vegetarians displayed elevated prevalence rates for depressive disorders, anxiety disorders and somatoform disorders. Due to the matching procedure, the findings cannot be explained by socio-demographic characteristics of vegetarians (e.g. higher rates of females, predominant residency in urban areas, high proportion of singles). The analysis of the respective ages at adoption of a vegetarian diet and onset of a mental disorder showed that the adoption of the vegetarian diet tends to follow the onset of mental disorders.


In Western cultures vegetarian diet is associated with an elevated risk of mental disorders. However, there was no evidence for a causal role of vegetarian diet in the etiology of mental disorders.

None of this means that you are at a greater risk of developing a mental disorder if you are a vegetarian(the study showed that people became vegetarian after showing symptoms of a mental disorder). It shows just a correlation between mental disorders and vegetarianism. Further studies may find no such correlation.

But assuming this is true, why is it so? Vegetarians may just be more sensitive in general, and to animal suffering in particular. In this way, we are like artists. In some studies, creativity is also linked with mental disorders. If you remember my post, The Vegan Brain is Different After all!, it wasn’t that big of a surprise that the brains of vegetarians seem to be wired a little differently from the brains of meat-eaters. Although vegetarians may generally be more prone to mental disorders, vegetarians tend to have higher IQs, on average.

People who enjoy torturing or killing animals or other people are also very likely to have serious mental disorders, but of a completely different kind. It is depressing to even think about such people, and is obviously even more depressing for animal-loving vegetarians.

Is schizophrenia caused by a virus?

I’ve long been intrigued by the idea that a virus, in conjunction with certain genetic abnormalities may play a role in the development of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

It is very difficult to figure out what is going on when it comes to the development of schizophrenia, since the brain and genetics are so very complicated. Let’s take a sneak peek anyway to see if any progress is being made. According to the University of Minnesota Medical School in The viral theory of schizophrenia revisited: abnormal placental gene expression and structural changes with lack of evidence for H1N1 viral presence in placentae of infected mice or brains of exposed offspring:


Researchers have long noted an excess of patients with schizophrenia were born during the months of January and March. This winter birth effect has been hypothesized to result either from various causes such as vitamin D deficiency (McGrath, 1999; McGrath et al., 2010), or from maternal infection during pregnancy. Infection with a number of viruses during pregnancy including influenza, and rubella are known to increase the risk of schizophrenia in the offspring (Brown, 2006). Animal models using influenza virus or Poly I:C, a viral mimic, have been able to replicate many of the brain morphological, genetic, and behavioral deficits of schizophrenia (Meyer et al., 2006, 2008a, 2009; Bitanihirwe et al., 2010; Meyer and Feldon, 2010; Short et al., 2010). Using a murine model of prenatal viral infection, our laboratory has shown that viral infection on embryonic days 9, 16, and 18 leads to abnormal expression of brain genes and brain structural abnormalities in the exposed offspring (Fatemi et al., 2005, 2008a,b, 2009a,b). The purpose of the current study was to examine gene expression and morphological changes in the placenta, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex as a result of viral infection on embryonic day 7 of pregnancy. Pregnant mice were either infected with influenza virus [A/WSN/33 strain (H1N1)] or sham-infected with vehicle solution. At E16, placentas were harvested and prepared for either microarray analysis or for light microscopy. We observed significant, upregulation of 77 genes and significant downregulation of 93 genes in placentas. In brains of exposed offspring following E7 infection, there were changes in gene expression in prefrontal cortex (6 upregulated and 24 downregulated at P0; 5 upregulated and 14 downregulated at P56) and hippocampus (4 upregulated and 6 downregulated at P0; 6 upregulated and 13 downregulated at P56). QRT-PCR verified the direction and magnitude of change for a number of genes associated with hypoxia, inflammation, schizophrenia, and autism. Placentas from infected mice showed a number of morphological abnormalities including presence of thrombi and increased presence of immune cells. Additionally, we searched for presence of H1N1 viral-specific genes for M1/M2, NA, and NS1 in placentas of infected mice and brains of exposed offspring and found none. Our results demonstrate that prenatal viral infection disrupts structure and gene expression of the placenta, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex potentially explaining deleterious effects in the exposed offspring without evidence for presence of viral RNAs in the target tissues.

If you would like to read some more, read this: The Insanity Virus

When it comes to puzzles, nothing beats the brain. It looks like this viral theory of schizophrenia has some support, though it looks like everyone has this virus to some degree.

Exercise and schizophrenia

Let’s have some fun today. Come with me deep into the human brain and have a look at what exercise can do for those suffering from schizophrenia. We’ve already explored how it may be beneficial for those with OCD(obsessive compulsive disorder), but I think it would be more interesting to see what exercise can do for those with a more “serious” mental condition.

Here is a list of the common symptoms of schizophrenia:

1) Characteristic symptoms: Two or more of the following, each present for much of the time during a one-month period (or less, if symptoms remitted with treatment).
Disorganized speech, which is a manifestation of formal thought disorder
Grossly disorganized behavior (e.g. dressing inappropriately, crying frequently) or catatonic behavior
Negative symptoms: Blunted affect (lack or decline in emotional response), alogia (lack or decline in speech), or avolition (lack or decline in motivation)
If the delusions are judged to be bizarre, or hallucinations consist of hearing one voice participating in a running commentary of the patient’s actions or of hearing two or more voices conversing with each other, only that symptom is required above. The speech disorganization criterion is only met if it is severe enough to substantially impair communication.
2) Social or occupational dysfunction: For a significant portion of the time since the onset of the disturbance, one or more major areas of functioning such as work, interpersonal relations, or self-care, are markedly below the level achieved prior to the onset.
3) Significant duration: Continuous signs of the disturbance persist for at least six months. This six-month period must include at least one month of symptoms (or less, if symptoms remitted with treatment).


Based on some of these symptoms, it looks like it may be difficult to motivate some people with schizophrenia to adopt a regular exercise regimen. There is a vast spectrum of severity of symptoms of this condition, with evidence that schizophrenia is correlated with some brain abnormalities(though this is not used to diagnose it).

According to the Department of Psychiatry, The Saarland University Hospital, Homburg, Germany:

Hippocampal volume is lower than expected in patients with schizophrenia; however, whether this represents a fixed deficit is uncertain. Exercise is a stimulus to hippocampal plasticity.

The results and conclusion of their research:


Following exercise training, relative hippocampal volume increased significantly in patients (12%) and healthy subjects (16%), with no change in the nonexercise group of patients (-1%). Changes in hippocampal volume in the exercise group were correlated with improvements in aerobic fitness measured by change in maximum oxygen consumption (r = 0.71; P = .003). In the schizophrenia exercise group (but not the controls), change in hippocampal volume was associated with a 35% increase in the N-acetylaspartate to creatine ratio in the hippocampus. Finally, improvement in test scores for short-term memory in the combined exercise and nonexercise schizophrenia group was correlated with change in hippocampal volume (r = 0.51; P < .05).

These results indicate that in both healthy subjects and patients with schizophrenia hippocampal volume is plastic in response to aerobic exercise.

While this study looked at the brain plasticity of schizophrenics, it didn’t monitor any improvements in living with their condition. Luckily, other researchers have explored if exercise can improve the lives of schizophrenics.

After examining many studies in the scientific literature, theĀ Schizophrenia Bulletin reports that:

Although studies included in this review are small and used various measures of physical and mental health, results indicated that regular exercise programs are possible in this population and that they can have healthful effects on both the physical and mental health and well being of individuals with schizophrenia. Larger randomized studies are required before any definitive conclusions can be drawn.

Although it can’t “cure” schizophrenia, it looks like exercise should be included in the treatment of schizophrenia and other mental conditions whenever possible. I don’t think there is anything that provides nearly as many benefits to health as exercise. Healthy body, healthy mind.