We’re Closer to Understanding Why People Develop Anxiety (Hint: It’s Your Parents)

If you're someone who doesn't live with anxiety, it may be difficult to understand the condition that makes some people feel completely out of control, constantly nervous and sometimes unable to get out of bed and function. If, like me, you're someone who does live with anxiety, you may wonder why one minute you could be feeling relatively OK about something and then the next minute, for seemingly no reason, start to panic and feel like you're having a heart attack and dying. The point is anxiety raises a lot of questions, one of the most prominent being what causes the condition? 

The good news is we are one step closer to understanding that thanks to a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience that found that anxiety can run in families — in monkeys, at least. 

The researchers discovered a pattern of brain activity linked to anxiety and traced it through several generations of monkeys to better understand the specific characteristics of the brain that are associated with anxiety and how they are passed down. 

More: My Anxiety Got Me Fired From 5 Jobs

“We are continuing to discover the brain circuits that underlie human anxiety, especially the alterations in circuit function that underlie the early childhood risk to develop anxiety and depressive disorders,’’ Dr. Ned Kalin, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and chairman of psychiatry, said in a statement. “In data from a species closely related to humans, these findings strongly point to alterations in human brain function that contribute to the level of an individual’s anxiety. Most importantly these findings are highly relevant to children with pathological anxiety and hold the promise to guide the development of new treatment approaches.”

More: Can Workplace Anxiety Be a Good Thing?

Kalin and his colleagues hypothesize that the same genes that underlie the connectivity of this circuit in the brain also underlie anxious temperament. This research, along with other studies currently being conducted in Kalin's laboratory, aim to identify gene alterations that can be made in the parts of the brain related to anxiety. This is important because it may result in new treatments for anxiety that are targeted at the cause of the condition rather than its symptoms. 

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America — affecting around 40 million adults age 18 and older, or 18.1 percent of the population — so there is significant interest in finding its root cause.

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