July 6, 2015

Kids can inherit their parents’ eye color, hair type, and even bone structure. But can genetics also explain a child’s anxiety levels? Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) investigated whether there is a generational link for anxiety.

The study from UW’s Department of Psychiatry and the HealthEmotions Research Institute examined a large, multi-generational family of nearly 600 rhesus monkeys. Like humans, monkeys can become anxious when exposed to unfamiliar people, environment, or circumstances. In this study, monkeys were exposed to strangers who did not make eye contact – a situation that a human child may encounter.

During this situation, scientists used medical imaging methods commonly used on humans, including positron emission tomography (PET scans) exams, to identify the regions of the brain affected by anxiety. Once these medical images were taken, researchers compared brain activity within the rhesus family tree. The researchers found increased  activity across three parts of the brain 1) the amygdala, 2) the limbic brain fear center, and 3) the pre-frontal cortex.

“Over-activity of these three regions of the brain is directly linked to the later life risk to develop anxiety and depression,” said Dr. Ned Kalin, Wisconsin National Primate Research Center scientist and chair of psychiatry at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. “This is a big step in understanding the neural underpinnings of inherited anxiety.”

This research marks a breakthrough in adolescent anxiety-related research, as it helps explain how genetics might affect brain function. Indeed, it was found that about 35% of anxiety tendencies can be explained by family history. Moreover, half of children who show extreme anxiety symptoms develop stress-related psychiatric disorders later in life.

“Now that we know where to look, we can develop a better understanding of the alterations that give rise to anxiety-related brain function,” Dr. Kalin said. “Our genes shape our brains to help make us who we are.”

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