Separation Anxiety Potentially Caused By Excess DUP7Q11.23 Genes

Separation anxiety is a normal developmental condition in children under two years old. Before then, young children associate a parents' disappearance from their sight as permanent, producing instant fear. Toddlers eventually learn that parents do indeed return, and their anxieties resolve. During stressful periods, however, it may reappear, especially in unfamiliar situations or when the parents are not nearby.

Canadian scientists identified a gene linked to separation anxiety, presenting their study at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego on November 16th. In assessing possible genetic causes for the anxiety disorder in children, lead researcher Lucy Osborne, PhD, of the University of Toronto, and colleagues investigated two types of children: those with Williams-Beuren syndrome (WBS), a disease typically characterized by a lack of a particular gene, and those with DUP7Q11.23, another rare, yet different condition associated with an excess of that same gene.

Phenotypic Expressions Due To Gene Deletion And Duplication

WBS is caused by a deletion of DUP7Q11.23, with patients typically lacking the GTF2I gene; children with WBS tend to suffer from cognitive deficiencies but do not suffer from social anxieties and are generally very sociable. Those with the other disease experience a high level of social anxiety and phobias. Their condition is caused by an excess of genes, including the GTF2I gene that is lacking in their WBS counterparts.

In examining the two different groups, the scientists learned that 26 percent of those with the excessive genetic copies suffered from separation anxiety, while less the 5 percent of the WBS children and youngsters in the general population experienced the anxiety disorder.

The next phase of the study involved breeding mice with either extra or missing copies of the GTF2I gene. Mouse pups with the extra genetic makeup exhibited signs of distress by vocalizing more frequently than normal when separated from the mothers. Baby mice with two copies of the GTF2I gene cried out an average of 192 times during four minutes, and those with three or four copies of the gene squeaked almost twice as often. Conversely, those missing the gene did not exhibit any extra vocalizations or distressing signs.

Can You Treat A Genetic Problem?

Osborne suggested the findings point to evidence of a gene that causes separation anxiety. She stated that the results could lead to more accurate therapies for those suffering from anxiety disorders. The study is the first to associate an addition or subtraction of a particular gene with the development of a form of anxiety. The findings should be considered preliminary, with publication in a peer-reviewed journal necessary for further exploration and validation.

Older children and teens exhibiting persistent signs of stress and fear when separated from their parents or caretakers may be diagnosed with separation anxiety. They may have never outgrown the stage or have regressed after experiencing a stressful event. Symptoms include ongoing distress when separated from parents, nightmares, fear of going to school or activities outside the home and concerns that the caregiver will be hurt.

Treatment for older kids and adolescents involves anti-anxiety drugs, along with psychotherapy for the parents and the child. Caregivers may also be instructed to change their parenting styles to alleviate symptoms.

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