Anxiety has always played a big part in my life. Sometimes casting a showdown of doubt and fear over daily living, while other times getting me motivated to start a task or stay away from bad situations. Definitely downsides and upsides. Some anxiety is normal, but when it starts to take over is where the problems occur. Some big questions for me have always been where does anxiety come from? Why are some people seemingly immune to worried-ness while others overthink and get upset about even the most trivial things or decisions? A correlation relating to those specific questions that I personally have observed is that it seems anxiety and related mental disorders seem to plague members of the same family, whether immediate, relatives, or ancestors. My own family definitely struggles with this, with my Grandmom jokingly saying it is those good old “Italian Genes.” As funny as it sounds, this statement brings up a very interesting question. Does anxiety relate back to genetics or are there third variables such as environment that we have to take into consideration other than blaming genetic makeup alone?
This has certainly been a question for scientists interested in psychology and the way it relates to brain function and genes. To try to uncover this question, scientists began to look a little more deeply into the human brain, specifically the neurons and fatty acids. They found that people with a certain gene have less FAAH. About 20% of people. (According to Heather Salerno, Cornell Writer) FAAH is a fatty acid that technically regulates happiness and I will explain how. This fatty acid is responsible for bringing down levels of Anandamide in the brain. Now this is where the neurons come in. Neurons are the way for the brain to transmit information. The neurotransmitter Anandamide is the one responsible for the transfer of happiness and joy. If the people with the special gene have less FAAH, there will not be as much regulation of the Anandamide neuron resulting in more happiness, joy and relaxation information meaning less anxiety. With more of the FAAH, scientists tested that people had an easier time forgetting negative behaviors or thoughts resulting in anxiety.
A team from Cornell University headed by Dr. Lee and Dr. Casey tested this theory in two very interesting experiments on both mice and humans. For the mice, they mutated the genes of some of the mice to give them the gene leading to less FAAH and more of the Anandamide. The mice were now put through tests with noise and mazes. The noise test related a shock to a loud noise. When the shock was removed, the mice with the new gene seemed to get over their fear much faster than the ones who did not receive it. They also seemed to be less frightened in the maze, not standing by the walls like the control group. The humans showed the same results in a similar noise test in which a loud bang was associated with a picture and then the noise was removed. P-values came out to 0.0007 and 0.01, strongly suggesting this was not due to chance.
Do these tests by the Cornell researchers prove the special gene and less FAAH means anxiety is directly related to genetics alone? Certainty not. Many other factors and third variables need to be considered including environment which also plays a huge part. These other factors need to be thought about before coming to a compete conclusion and claiming this study says it all. The study also importantly noted that these tests showed a decrease in anxiety-like behavior because measuring anxiety alone would be almost impossible. More studies and trials would give a stronger link to the relationship of anxiety and genetics but this is a great start. Meta-analyses would greatly lower the p-value that this was due to chance even though it was already low. However, these trials give a great insight into the role that genetics plays and might even be able to help develop better relief for patients.
For someone who deals with anxiety it was interesting to learn about how it happens on the brain level. It gave me more explanation on why it seems anxiety runs in a families based on my earlier observation and what my Grandmom had said. Although it does not prove any sort of link, the Cornell study strongly suggests correlation, and maybe in time more similar trials, will dig even deeper to this panicky disorder.
Ways to reduce anxiety: