SURVIVE: let the dead help the living—an autopsy-based cohort study for mapping risk markers of death among those with severe mental illnesses

Jytte Banner 1 , Christian Bjerre Høyer 2 , Martin Roest Christensen 1 , Alexandra Gheorghe 1 , Anne Bugge 1 , Gyda Lolk Ottesen 1 , Lene Warner Thorup Boel 2 , Jørgen Lange Thomsen 3 , Line Kruckow 1  and Christina Jacobsen 1
  • 1 Department of Forensic Medicine, DK-2100, Copenhagen
  • 2 Department of Forensic Medicine, DK-8200, Aarhus
  • 3 Department of Forensic Medicine, DK-5000, Odense, Denmark


Background: Forensic autopsy strategies may improve differential diagnostics both post-mortem and ante-mortem and aid in clinical settings concerning preventive efforts for premature mortality. Excess mortality and reduced life expectancy affect persons with severe mental illnesses (SMI) for multi-faceted reasons that remain controversial. Somatic conditions, medical treatment and lifestyle diseases, which are primarily examined in the living, contribute to premature deaths. The underlying pathophysiological mechanisms are unclear, though, and the benefits of a focused, standardised autopsy remain unproven. We have developed and implemented an optimised molecular–biological autopsy for deceased persons with SMI. Our aim is to map the occurrence of 1) somatic diseases and organ changes; 2) metabolic syndrome; 3) use and abuse of alcohol, pharmaceuticals and psychoactive substances; 4) pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic factors in the metabolism of pharmaceuticals; and 5) genetic variations (acquired and/or congenital) in sudden cardiac death. Additionally, we hope to contribute to diagnostic treatments and preventive measures to benefit those living with SMI. Methods: SURVIVE: let the dead help the living is a prospective, autopsy-based study on 500 deceased persons with SMI subjected to forensic autopsies under the Danish Act on Forensic Inquests and Autopsy. The autopsies followed an extended, standardised autopsy protocol comprised of whole-body computed tomography scanning, magnetic resonance imaging of the heart and brain and an extended forensic autopsy, including a wide panel of analyses (toxicology, microbiology, genetics, histology and biochemical analysis). Additionally, post-mortem data were linked to ante-mortem health data extracted from Danish national health registers.

Discussion: The SURVIVE autopsy procedure, including tissue sampling and bio banking, has been shown to be effective. We expect that the SURVIVE study will provide unique opportunities to unravel the mechanisms and causes of premature death in persons with SMI. We also expect that identifying prognostic biomarkers for comorbidities will contribute to prevention of premature deaths and comorbidities in persons with SMI.

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