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Study Yields Insight Into Genetic Architecture of Anxiety

January 21, 2020

A genome-wide association study has identified several human genome regions related to anxiety risk. Researchers published their findings online in The American Journal of Psychiatry.

The findings are “an important step forward” in understanding anxiety disorders and the contribution of genes, said lead author Daniel F. Levey, PhD, of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and the Veterans Affairs Connecticut Healthcare Center.

Dr. Levey and colleagues tapped data from the VA Million Veteran Program, a biobank that includes genetic, environmental, and medical information, to compare the genomes of almost 200,000 people.

The study identified 5 locations on the human genome associated with anxiety in Americans of European descent and 1 location in African Americans. Gene variants at the locations, researchers explained, could increase the risk for anxiety.h

Scans Show Shared Brain Abnormalities With Mood, Anxiety Disorders 

The strongest locations were near genes involved with global regulation of gene expression (SATB1) and the estrogen receptor alpha (ESR1), according to the study. Another location (near MAD1L1) was previously linked with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia risk.

The study provides the first significant genome-wide findings regarding anxiety in people of African ancestry, Dr. Levey noted.

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

Some 18% of participants in the Million Veteran Program are African American.

—Jolynn Tumolo 


Levey DF, Gelernter J, Polimanti R, et al. Reproducible genetic risk loci for anxiety: results from 200,000 participants in the Million Veteran Program. The American Journal of Psychiatry. 2020 January 7;[Epub ahead of print].

Million Veteran Program study sheds light on genetic basis of anxiety [press release]. Baltimore, Maryland: Veterans Affairs (VA) Research Communications; January 7, 2020.

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