New genetic clues to anxiety uncovered

A study by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has honed in on the regions of the genome that might be involved.

The largest genetic study on anxiety to date has shed new light on the nature of the disorder, identifying regions on the human genome linked to an increased risk.

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Anxiety disorders affect millions of people around the world – a 2013 study put the figure at eight million in the UK alone.

Why some people develop anxiety disorders, and some don’t, is not fully understood. There are likely to be a number of factors at play: life circumstances such as stressful events and experiences can play a role, but there’s also likely to be a genetic component. Now, a study by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has honed in on the regions of the genome that might be involved.

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The study was part of the VA Million Veteran Program (MVP), which uses data from hundreds of thousands of American military veterans to understand more about how genes affect health.

Nearly 200,000 veterans had their genomes compared for the study, and the researchers identified five genome locations related to anxiety in Americans of European descent, and one in African Americans. The researchers say that gene variants at these genome locations could increase anxiety risk.

New genetic clues to anxiety uncovered (Numerous genetic studies are now underway using data from VA's landmark Million Veteran Program, which currently has upwards of 800,000 participants © Robert Lisak)
Numerous genetic studies are now underway using data from VA’s landmark Million Veteran Program, which currently has upwards of 800,000 participants © Robert Lisak

Of particular note is the finding for African Americans, said Dr Dan Levey at the VA Connecticut Healthcare Center and Yale University, one of the study’s lead authors.

“Minorities are underrepresented in genetic studies,” he said, “and the diversity of the MVP was essential for this part of the project. The genetic variant we identified occurs only in individuals of African ancestry, and would have been completely missed in less diverse cohorts.”

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It’s hoped that these findings could lead the way to new ‘precision medicine’ approaches to treating anxiety, where treatments are tailored to individuals, using information such as their genetic profile.