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Wednesday, 22 August, 2001, 23:59 GMT 00:59 UK
Panic attack gene breakthrough
Panic attack
A genetic mutation may make some people susceptible to panic attacks
Researchers may have found the genetic mutation that is to blame for most panic attacks and other anxiety disorders that affect many people.

The breakthrough could lead to the development of drugs to help people overcome their fears.

It looks like they have found an entirely new mechanism of disease

Dr Raymond Crow
It is estimated that more than one in ten people suffer from some form of anxiety disorder.

New Scientist magazine reports that the discovery was made by a team at the Centre for Medical and Molecular Biology in Barcelona.

The scientists studied families with a history of problems such as panic disorders, agoraphobia and social phobia.

Common abnormality

They found that 90% of the affected family members carried a genetic abnormality.

The same mutation - dubbed DUP25 - was also present in most other unrelated people that they tested, but it was rare in people who had no anxiety problems.

The region in which the mutation occurs contains more than 60 genes, or which only 23 have so far been identified.

However, scientists do know that some of these genes manufacture proteins that play a crucial role in controlling the way the cells of the nervous system communicate with each other.

It may be that an imbalance in the production of these proteins makes the brain over-sensitive to stressful situations.

However, the scientists stress that not everybody who carries the DUP25 mutation is likely to suffer from anxiety disorders.

Environmental factors

Researcher Dr Monica Gratacos said: "The environment is also very important.

It is not a simple matter, it is probably a balance of difference factors

Professor Raymond Baker
"In the affected families, for instance, 20% of people with DUP25 had no anxiety illness at all."

The team is now trying to identify exactly which genes on DUP25 are linked to anxiety disorders.

If they can do this, it might be possible to find drugs that suppress either the genes or their protein products. However, this could take ten years.

The scientists have also discovered that the DUP25 mutation can change from generation to generation.

It even varies within individuals - not all cells from some patients had the mutation.

Dr Raymond Crow, a psychiatrist at the University of Iowa who studies the genetics of panic disorder, told New Scientist magazine that the discovered was a "very important finding".

He said: "It looks like they have found an entirely new mechanism of disease."

Mix of factors

Professor Roger Baker, an expert in panic disorders and a clinical psychologist based at Dorset Healthcare NHS Trust, told BBC News Online that it was likely that panic attacks were caused by a mixture of genetic and environmental factors.

He said that people who had a parent who experienced panic disorders were up to seven times more likely to develop a similar disorder than other members of the population.

However, between a half and three-quarters of people who presented for treatment had no parental history of the disorder. Some 8% of panic attacks are caused by misuse of drugs.

He said: "It is not a simple matter, it is probably a balance of different factors.

"It may well be that some people have a general susceptibility to panic attacks, but they would probably need some sort of stressful event to set it off."

Professor Baker said that a panic attack was essentially a normal response to fear triggered at an inappropriate moment.

His research has shown that people who experience panic attacks tend to suppress their emotions. It might be that this tendency leads to emotions being bottled up until a panic attack is their only release.

Often the critical factor was not the panic attack itself, but the way the sufferer responded. Secondary factors such as misinterpreting the attack as a heart attack or impending madness, and avoiding situations that might trigger panic attacks interfered with the person's life more than the actual panic attack itself.

Psychological techniques and anti-depressant medications have proved successful in combating the problem.

See also:

14 Jun 00 | Health
'Gene for panic attacks'
13 Oct 99 | Medical notes
Anxiety disorder
08 Nov 00 | Health
Smoking 'increases anxiety risk'
06 Apr 01 | Health
'Suicidal genes' identified
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