New risk factors for anxiety disorders

February 24, 2017, University of Würzburg
Activation of the brain's fear network, visualized using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Credit: Dr. Tina Lonsdorf, Systems Neuroscience UKE Hamburg

Mental, social and inherited factors all play a role in anxiety disorders. In the journal Molecular Psychiatry, a research team from Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) in Bavaria, Germany, describes a hitherto unknown genetic pathway for developing such diseases: They pinpointed at least four variants of the GLRB gene (glycine receptor B) as risk factors for anxiety and panic disorders. More than 5000 voluntary participants and 500 patients afflicted by panic disorder took part in the study that delivered these results.

In Germany, around 15 percent of adults suffer from anxiety and panic disorders. Some people may have an extreme fear of spiders or other objects while others have breathing difficulties and accelerated heart beat in small rooms or large gatherings of people. With some afflicted persons, the anxiety attacks occur for no apparent cause. Many patients suffer from the detrimental impacts on their everyday lives - they often have problems at work and withdraw from social contacts.

How are fear and anxiety triggered? How do anxiety disorders arise and evolve?

Scientists from Münster, Hamburg and Würzburg have looked into these questions within the scope of Collaborative Research Center (CRC) TR 58 funded by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. Their goal is to develop new therapies that are better tailored to the individual patients. Anxiety disorders can be treated with drugs and behaviour therapy for instance.

Gene triggers hyperekplexia

The discovery that different variants of the GLRB gene are associated with anxiety disorders might also contribute to the development of improved therapies. The gene had been known to the researchers for some time, albeit only in connection with a different disease:

"Some mutations of the gene cause a rare neurological disorder called hyperekplexia," explains Professor Jürgen Deckert, member of the CRC and Director of the Department of Psychiatry at the JMU University Hospital. The patients are permanently hypertonic and show pronounced startle responses, which may even cause sufferers to fall involuntarily. Similar to persons suffering from , these patients develop behaviour to avoid potentially frightening situations.

The "fear network" in the brain is activated

But the GLRB gene variants that have recently been associated with anxiety and for the first time are different from the ones described above. They occur more frequently and presumably entail less severe consequences. But they, too, trigger overshooting startle responses, and as a result may excessively activate the brain's "fear network". High-resolution images of the brain activities of study participants provided the clues for the Würzburg scientists.

"The results point to a hitherto unknown pathway of developing an anxiety disorder," Deckert says. He believes that further investigations are now necessary to determine whether these findings can be harnessed to develop new or individual therapies. For example, it is conceivable to bring the "fear network" that is misregulated by the GLRB gene back on track by administering drugs.

Explore further: Psychotherapy normalizes the brain in social phobia

More information: J Deckert et al, GLRB allelic variation associated with agoraphobic cognitions, increased startle response and fear network activation: a potential neurogenetic pathway to panic disorder, Molecular Psychiatry (2017). DOI: 10.1038/mp.2017.2

Related Stories

Psychotherapy normalizes the brain in social phobia

February 6, 2017
Anxiety in social situations is not a rare problem: Around one in ten people are affected by social anxiety disorder during their lifetime. Social anxiety disorder is diagnosed if fears and anxiety in social situations significantly ...

Fear of the unknown common to many anxiety disorders

November 18, 2016
Several anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder and specific phobias, share a common underlying trait: increased sensitivity to uncertain threat, or fear of the unknown, report researchers from ...

Understanding the brain's 'suffocation alarm'

December 1, 2014
Panic disorder is a severe form of anxiety in which the affected individual feels an abrupt onset of fear, often accompanied by profound physical symptoms of discomfort. Scientists have known from studying twins that genes ...

Review links anxiety disorders to risk of cardiovascular events

August 15, 2016
(HealthDay)—Anxiety disorders are associated with a range of cardiovascular events, according to a meta-analysis published in the Aug. 15 issue of The American Journal of Cardiology.

Genetic variant helps explain why anxiety disorders strike most often in the teen years

March 22, 2016
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers with members from Cornell University and the University of California has zeroed in on a genetic variant to help explain why it is that anxiety disorders tend to strike most often ...

Recommended for you

Color of judo uniform has no effect on winning

February 22, 2018
New research on competitive judo data finds a winning bias for the athlete who is first called, regardless of the colour of their uniform. This unique study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, puts to rest the debate on ...

Infants are able to learn abstract rules visually

February 22, 2018
Three-month-old babies cannot sit up or roll over, yet they are already capable of learning patterns from simply looking at the world around them, according to a recent Northwestern University study published in PLOS One.

Antidepressants are more effective than placebo at treating acute depression in adults, concludes study

February 22, 2018
Meta-analysis of 522 trials includes the largest amount of unpublished data to date, and finds that antidepressants are more effective than placebo for short-term treatment of acute depression in adults.

How people cope with difficult life events fuels development of wisdom, study finds

February 21, 2018
How a person responds to a difficult life event such as a death or divorce helps shape the development of their wisdom over time, a new study from Oregon State University suggests.

Smartphones are bad for some teens, not all

February 21, 2018
Is the next generation better or worse off because of smartphones? The answer is complex and research shows it largely depends on their lives offline.

Researchers uncover novel mechanism behind schizophrenia

February 21, 2018
An international team of researchers led by a Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine scientist has uncovered a novel mechanism in which a protein—neuregulin 3—controls how key neurotransmitters are released ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.