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Anxiety, Monkeys, Us: Delving Into Genetics

Jul 08, 2015 10:43 PM EDT
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Whether you are Woody Allen or a Rhesus monkey, you might have had an anxious parent.

That's essentially what researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Department of Psychiatry and Health Emotions Research Institute were saying when they recently published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)regarding how the risk of developing anxiety and depression is inherited by children from parents. 

The study shows that particularly busy activity in the prefrontal-limbic-midbrain circuit is likely connected with mediating the in-born risk for extreme anxiety and anxious temperament that can be seen in early childhood, according to a release.

"This is a big step in understanding the neural underpinnings of inherited anxiety and begins to give us more selective targets for treatment," said senior author Ned Kalin, chair of psychiatry at the UWSchool of Medicine and Public Health, according to the release.

Kalin's group's previous research has explained the brain circuits involved in inheriting an anxious temperament. About half of children who show extreme anxiety later develop stress-related psychiatric disorders, according to the release.

The researchers studied nearly 600 young rhesus monkeys from a large multi-generational family, finding that about 35 percent of variation in anxiety-like tendencies is explained by family history, according to a release.

They learned that individual differences in early-life anxiety played a part in three survival-related brain regions: the brain stem, the brain's most primitive area; the amygdala, the limbic brain fear center; and the prefrontal cortex, responsible for higher-level learning and fully developed only in humans and primate relatives, according to a release.

"Basically, we think that to a certain extent, anxiety can provide an evolutionary advantage because it helps an individual recognize and avoid danger, but when the circuits are over-active, it becomes a problem and can result in anxiety and depressive disorders," Kalin says, in this release.

The next step will involve looking for molecular alterations that might cause anxiety-related brain function, Kalin said in a release.

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