It Runs in the Family: New Research May Shape Anxiety Treatment

Anxiety disorders can produce symptoms that range from the annoying to the crippling, and often lead to feelings of shame and isolation in those who suffer from this complex group of illnesses. While some people’s anxiety can easily be traced to specific events, particularly trauma, for others the source of the illness remains a mystery. However, researchers are gaining ground in discovering how anxiety develops, and suggest that some anxiety may be hereditary, transmitted from parent to child. New insight into the phenomenology of these illnesses may open up the door for more effective anxiety treatment and greater self-understanding for those living with anxiety.

The Anxious Brain Circuit

A recent study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin sought to flesh out our understanding of the biological underpinnings of anxious responses, and the possibility of anxiety being passed down through generations. The study used imaging technology to observe the brain activity of almost 600 rhesus monkeys when exposed to a low-level threat, specifically “a stranger entering a room and not making eye contact.” Rhesus monkeys were chosen due to their behavioral similarity to children. The brain scans allowed the researchers to identify a particular circuit made up for the brainstem, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex that appears to be the basis for hereditability of anxiety. These areas of the brain contribute to normal stress responses, but when you suffer from anxiety, they appear to go into overdrive and disrupt normal emotional processing. The discovery of this brain circuit may lead to more sophisticated treatments that directly target the overactive components and offer relief for those living with anxiety.

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The Genetic Component

The exact mechanism by which anxiety is passed from parent to child remains unknown, but there is increasing evidence of a genetic component that predisposes you to develop an anxious temperament. A group of researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital found that that both children and adults with a particular genetic variation display higher levels of social inhibition and “reactivity of brain regions involved in processing fear and anxiety,” increasing their risk of anxiety disorders, particularly social anxiety. Studies in mice indicate that specific presentations of RGS2, a protein that mediates neurotransmitter receptor activity, in chromosome 1 is associated with anxious temperaments. Upon examining the blood samples of children who had participated in earlier studies assessing anxiety reactions, the researchers identified 9 RGS2 gene variations linked to behavioral inhibition. To examine if the 4 most prominent variations were associated with social inhibition in adults, the researchers conducted personality surveys and analyzed blood samples from over 700 college students. They found that the genetic markers linked to behavioral inhibition in children were the same as those associated with social inhibition in adults.

Re-Training the Brain

Having a hereditary predisposition to anxiety does not mean that you cannot overcome your illness. The brain is highly adaptable and neurobehavioral treatment such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can teach you how to form healthier responses to stressors, encouraging the forging of new neural pathways that alleviate anxious symptoms. As Ami Albernaz of the Boston Globe points out, “Neuroimaging studies of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in people with anxiety disorders have shown changes in brain activation patterns over the course of treatment.” Modern anxiety treatment can allow you to develop the skills you need to more realistically evaluate risk, cope with triggers, and gain psychological harmony. By taking control of your anxiety, you may also be able to halt the development of the illness in your own children and enable you to model healthy emotional and behavioral patterns.

Bridges to Recovery offers innovative residential treatment for people suffering from mental health disorders, including anxiety. Contact us to find out more about how we can help you or your loved one.