New research suggests that panic attacks and phobias may be linked to an unusual genetic abnormality. Dr. Xavier Estevill, of the Duran I Rynals Hospital in Barcelona, has discovered a new genetic mechanism for your fears.

Estevill has discovered that, among a random sampling of people with anxiety disorders, 97 percent had a duplication of genetic material on chromosome 15, as compared with 7 percent in a comparison group of healthy people. Phobias afflict about 10 to 20 percent of the human population.

He studied 140 people from various families in a Spanish village who suffered from either social phobias, fear of open spaces, or recurring panic attacks. He then examined 70 unrelated people with the same psychological problems, as well as a comparison group of 189 people with no anxietydisorders. He found that almost 100 percent of those with panic or phobias in the family group had a duplication of genetic material on chromosome 15.

Estevill doesn’t believe the abnormality is inherited, because it wasn’t found in all the cells of the affected people. “You’re probably born with this mutation, but it probably arises during development,” he speculated. He found the mutation in half of 25 sperm samples, but doesn’t know whether the defective sperm would be able to create a successful pregnancy.

The study suggests that a gene on some other chromosome, or some environmental factor that occurs early in fetal development, may in turn give some people an abnormality in chromosome 15. The defect may make them more susceptible to panic attacks and anxiety. The idea of a mutation in onegene triggering a mutation in another gene has been noted in plants, but never before in humans.

“This is a susceptibility factor,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that because you have this variant you will get panic disorder. Not everybody that had the mutation developed the disorder-40 percent of the people in the family group that had the duplication had panic disorder.”

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