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Genetics of Anxiety Disorders: Insights from Human & Animal Research (2023)

Anxiety disorders, characterized by excessive or prolonged fear and anxiety, are influenced by both genetic and environmental factors.

Recent advancements in genetics and animal model research are shedding light on the intricate neurobiological mechanisms underlying these conditions.


  • Anxiety disorders have a moderate heritability, indicating a significant genetic component.
  • Chronic psychosocial stress and traumatic events are key environmental risk factors.
  • Genome-wide association studies (GWASs) have identified specific genetic variants linked to anxiety.
  • Rodent models, particularly mice, are crucial in understanding the neurobiological basis of anxiety disorders.

Source: Trends in Neurosciences (2023)

The Genetic Underpinnings of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders, with a heritability estimated between 30-40%, are influenced by a complex network of genetic elements.

This heritability rate, while significant, also indicates that non-genetic factors play a substantial role in the development of these disorders.

Genetic Factors

The genetic contribution to anxiety disorders is multifaceted.

It involves numerous genes, each contributing a small effect.

This polygenic nature means that no single gene is solely responsible for these disorders.

Instead, it’s the cumulative impact of many slight genetic variations that increases the risk.

Environmental Factors

Key environmental contributors include chronic stress and traumatic life events.

These factors can trigger or exacerbate anxiety disorders in individuals who are genetically predisposed.

The interaction between genetic predisposition and environmental stressors is crucial in determining the likelihood and severity of developing an anxiety disorder.

Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWASs) in Anxiety Disorders

GWASs have revolutionized our understanding of the genetic basis of anxiety disorders by identifying numerous small-effect genetic variants across the genome.

  • Identification of Risk Variants: These studies have pinpointed single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) associated with increased risk of anxiety. However, each SNP typically contributes a very small increase in risk, reflecting the complex polygenic nature of these disorders.
  • Challenges and Opportunities: One of the primary challenges of GWASs is the interpretation of these findings, particularly because many SNPs lie in noncoding regions of the genome. Understanding how these variants contribute to anxiety disorders requires further investigation into how they influence gene expression and regulation.

Role of Animal Models in Anxiety Research

Animal models, especially rodents, are invaluable in translating genetic findings from GWASs into functional understanding.

  • Translating Human Genetics to Rodent Studies: By manipulating genes identified in human studies in rodent models, researchers can observe the resulting behavioral and physiological changes. This provides insight into the roles these genes may play in anxiety disorders.
  • Diversity in Genetic Backgrounds: Historically, many rodent studies have used specific substrains like C57BL/6 mice. However, there’s an increasing emphasis on using a variety of genetic backgrounds, including both male and female animals, to better replicate the genetic diversity seen in humans and enhance the translational validity of these models.

Rodent Models of Anxiety Disorders

Rodents offer a valuable model for studying the genetic and environmental aspects of anxiety disorders due to their physiological and behavioral similarities with humans.

Stress-Induced Anxiety-Like Behaviors: Various stress paradigms in rodents, such as chronic social defeat or restraint stress, are used to induce anxiety-like behaviors. These models help in understanding how genetic and environmental factors interact to produce anxiety symptoms.

Implications for Human Anxiety: Insights gained from rodent models are crucial for developing a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying human anxiety disorders and for testing potential therapeutic interventions.

Human Genes Linked to Anxiety Disorders

The quest to unravel the genetic basis of anxiety disorders has led to the identification of several key genes.

These genes, revealed through genome-wide association studies (GWASs) and other genetic research methods, play diverse roles in brain function and development.

TMEM132D (Transmembrane Protein 132D)

TMEM132D has emerged as a significant gene in the context of panic disorder and anxiety severity.

Postmortem analyses have shown higher TMEM132D expression levels in the frontal cortex of individuals carrying risk variants, correlating with higher trait anxiety and larger amygdala volumes.

Mechanisms: Although the exact functions of TMEM132D are not fully understood, it is suggested to be involved in oligodendrocyte differentiation and may regulate the cytoskeleton of dopaminergic neurons. Its overexpression in certain mouse models leads to increased anxiety-like behavior, indicating its potential role in modulating neuronal and synaptic functions related to anxiety.

PDE4B (Phosphodiesterase 4B)

Variants within PDE4B have been associated with anxiety and stress-related phenotypes.

Lower expression of PDE4B in certain mouse models of chronic social defeat stress correlates with increased stress susceptibility.

Mechanisms: PDE4B is integral in the hydrolysis of cAMP, a critical second messenger in cellular signaling. Its high expression in key brain regions for anxiety, such as the amygdala and frontal cortex, highlights its role in modulating neuronal signaling pathways that influence anxiety-related behavior.

NTRK2 (Neurotrophic Receptor Tyrosine Kinase 2)

NTRK2, encoding the TrkB receptor, has been linked to anxiety disorders.

The TrkB receptor is a binding site for brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a neurotrophin implicated in brain plasticity and stress responses.

Mechanisms: Variations in NTRK2 potentially affect TrkB signaling pathways, influencing neuronal development and synaptic plasticity. Animal studies indicate that manipulations of TrkB expression in specific neurons can significantly alter anxiety-like behaviors, underscoring its broad role in anxiety regulation.

ESR1 (Estrogen Receptor 1)

ESR1, encoding estrogen receptor alpha, has been identified as a significant gene in the context of anxiety.

Estrogen receptors are known to influence brain function and behavior significantly.

Mechanisms: ESR1’s role in stress resilience and susceptibility to anxiety-like behavior, particularly in the context of sex differences, is of significant interest. Variations in ESR1 expression can lead to different transcriptional responses in stress contexts, suggesting a complex interplay between sex hormones and stress responses in the brain.

SATB1 (Special AT-rich Sequence-binding Protein 1)

Variants near SATB1 have been associated with anxiety disorders.

SATB1 acts as a chromatin organizer and influences the expression of several genes in neurons.

Mechanisms: SATB1 targets include CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone) and BDNF, crucial in the stress response and neuronal plasticity. Its regulation of gene networks involved in synaptic development and neuronal maturation may underlie its role in anxiety disorders.

Other Genes Linked to Anxiety Disorders in Humans

However, there are additional genes from your list that are also significant in the context of anxiety disorders. Let’s explore some more of these genes in detail:

PKP1 (Plakophilin 1)

Association with Anxiety: Linked to panic disorder through the SNP rs860554.

Potential Role: PKP1 is known for its role in cell-cell adhesion, which is crucial for maintaining the integrity of tissues, including neural tissues. Alterations in PKP1 could affect neural circuitry integrity, potentially influencing anxiety-related behaviors.


Association with Anxiety: Identified in association with anxiety disorders through the SNP rs1709393.

Potential Role: The function of LOC15225 in anxiety is not well defined, as it is less characterized. It might be involved in gene regulation that affects neural pathways associated with anxiety.

CAMKMT (Calmodulin-Lysine N-Methyltransferase)

Association with Anxiety: Linked to anxiety factor score through the SNP rs1067327.

Potential Role: CAMKMT modifies calmodulin, which is involved in calcium signaling in neurons. Disruptions in this process could affect neuronal activity and potentially contribute to anxiety disorders.

GLRB (Glycine Receptor Beta)

Association with Anxiety: Associated with agoraphobia cognition through the SNP rs78726293.

Potential Role: GLRB is a component of the inhibitory glycine receptor. Variations in this gene might affect inhibitory neurotransmission in the brain, which is crucial for regulating anxiety and fear responses.

SATB1-AS1 (SATB1 Antisense RNA 1)

Association with Anxiety: Linked to generalized anxiety disorder through the SNP rs4603973.

Potential Role: As an antisense RNA to SATB1, it may influence the expression and function of SATB1, which is involved in chromatin organization and gene regulation, including genes that are relevant to stress response.

LINC01360 (Long Intergenic Non-Protein Coding RNA 1360)

Association with Anxiety: Associated with generalized anxiety disorder through the SNP rs12023347.

Potential Role: As a long non-coding RNA, LINC01360 is likely involved in the regulation of gene expression. Its specific role in anxiety is not clear, but it may influence gene networks implicated in stress response or neuronal function.

MAD1L1 (Mitotic Arrest Deficient 1 Like 1)

Association with Anxiety: Linked to generalized anxiety disorder through the SNP rs56226325.

Potential Role: MAD1L1 is involved in cell cycle regulation. Its association with anxiety could relate to its role in neural development or in the response of neural tissues to stress.


Association with Anxiety: These genes are associated with generalized anxiety disorder through the SNP rs6090040.

Potential Role: TCEA2 is involved in transcription regulation, RGS19 in G-protein signaling regulation, and OPRL1 encodes a receptor involved in pain perception. Their specific roles in anxiety could be diverse, affecting transcriptional regulation, signal transduction, and sensory processing.

TRPV6 (Transient Receptor Potential Cation Channel, Subfamily V, Member 6)

Association with Anxiety: Linked to generalized anxiety disorder through the SNP rs575403075.

Potential Role: TRPV6 is involved in calcium transport and could affect neuronal excitability and signaling pathways relevant to anxiety.

Why research genetics of anxiety disorders?

  • Personalized Medicine: A deeper genetic understanding of anxiety disorders can lead to personalized treatments. By identifying individual genetic profiles, treatments can be tailored to the specific genetic makeup of each patient, improving efficacy and reducing side effects.
  • Unraveling Biological Pathways: Knowledge of the genetic underpinnings of anxiety disorders can illuminate the biological pathways involved in their development. This information is crucial for identifying potential targets for therapeutic intervention.
  • Risk Assessment and Early Intervention: Understanding genetic predispositions can aid in early identification and intervention for those at higher risk. Early intervention can lead to better outcomes and possibly prevent the full development of the disorder.
  • Breaking Down Complexity: Anxiety disorders are complex and heterogeneous. A genetic perspective can help classify these disorders more accurately based on underlying biological mechanisms rather than just symptomatic criteria.
  • Reducing Stigma: Genetic insights can also help in reducing the stigma associated with mental health disorders. Understanding that these conditions have a biological basis can lead to greater acceptance and empathy.

Usefulness of Genetic Research of Anxiety Disorders

  • Gene Therapy: Future treatments might involve gene therapy techniques, such as CRISPR-Cas9, to edit genes associated with anxiety disorders directly. While this is still largely theoretical and ethical considerations abound, it represents a potential long-term solution.
  • Pharmacogenomics: This involves developing medications based on genetic understanding. For instance, if certain genetic variants are known to cause anxiety by affecting serotonin levels, drugs can be designed to target these specific pathways.
  • Epigenetic Treatments: Epigenetics, the study of how genes are expressed, offers another avenue for treatment. Drugs that modify the epigenetic state of neurons could potentially reverse the changes caused by both genetic predispositions and environmental stressors.
  • Targeting Genetic Pathways: With the identification of specific genes and pathways involved in anxiety, treatments can be developed to target these pathways directly. For example, if a particular receptor is overexpressed in anxiety disorders, drugs can be designed to modulate this receptor’s activity.
  • Neuromodulation Techniques: Techniques like deep brain stimulation (DBS) or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) could be tailored based on genetic profiles to target specific brain regions implicated in anxiety disorders.

Takeaway: Neurobiology & Genetics of Anxiety

The exploration of the genetic and neurobiological underpinnings of anxiety disorders is a rapidly evolving field.

The integration of human genetic studies with animal models is paving the way for a deeper understanding of these complex conditions.

This knowledge is vital for developing targeted treatments, ultimately improving the lives of millions affected by anxiety disorders worldwide.


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