Scientists have published a new study in journal Molecular Psychiatry wherein they have identified new risk factors said to be responsible for anxiety disorders.
Researchers from Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) in Bavaria, Germany, have described in their study previously unknown genetic pathway that are responsible for developing anxiety disorders. Researchers have pinpointed at least four variants of the GLRB gene (glycine receptor B) as risk factors for anxiety and panic disorders.
The study saw participation from more than 5000 voluntary participants and 500 patients afflicted by panic disorder. Scientists from Münster, Hamburg and Würzburg looked into the factors that could be responsible for anxiety in adults with a goal 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 anxiety disorders, 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 panic disorders 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.