7 new genes identified as potential indicators for anxiety disorders


Treating anxiety disorders, such as obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder and social anxiety disorder, is complex and varies for each person. With a combination of genetic and environmental factors, it can be challenging for people to get the personalized care that they need. As a result, many people are not treated at all.

Nathaniel McGregor, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychiatry and Department of Genetics at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, decided to look at genetics instead of the two core pathways that are associated with drug-based therapies: the dopaminergic and the serotonergic pathways.

His research uncovered several genes (including MMP9, EGR2, EGR4, NTF4 and ARC) that could play a role in how anxiety develops and progresses. He shared about the findings with The Conversation:

To help us identify the candidate genes, we focused on the striatum section of the brain in which the synaptic plasticity pathway was chosen. In neuroscience, synaptic plasticity refers to the ability of synapses (connections in the brain) to strengthen or weaken over time in response to a stimulus. The striatum helps co-ordinate motivation with body movement. It can be as simple as fine-motor function or as complex as behavioural inhibition depending on social interaction.

The result was that we identified seven new genes as possible candidates for further study. Six of these genes have never been implicated in anxiety disorders before.

McGregor spelled out why he thinks people with anxiety disorders are extremely under-served, and why being able to more closely pinpoint what’s going on with each individual could make effective treatment much more of a reality.

Anxiety disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder and social anxiety disorder are among the most severe and debilitating conditions. They currently affect up to 350 million people worldwide.

Despite this disease burden, they have not achieved the visibility, attention or funding they comparatively deserve. For example, the US allocated (in millions) $3920 to cover all brain disorders research for the 2015 financial year. HIV, with an incidence rate well below anxiety disorder – let alone brain disorders in general – received $3000 (in millions).

As these genes are looked at more closely with further research, new treatments could be developed that would work for individuals in a way that current drugs do not.

By uncovering these new candidates genes – involved not only in risk, but environmental interplay – there is new hope for better and improved treatment strategies.

But whether it is by realising new drug targets, a better understanding at a molecular level or how one’s environment influences disease, a small – yet promising – arsenal of candidates could shed a little more light on a rather dimly lit road.

Photo: Flickr user Alessandra