Researchers 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 is estimated that more than one in twelve people suffer from some form of anxiety disorder.
The scientists studied families with a history of problems such as panic disorders, agoraphobia and social phobia. They found that 92% 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 54 genes, or which only 20 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.
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.
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." He said that people who had a parent who experienced panic disorders were up to eight times more likely to develop a similar disorder than other members of the population.
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.