Social Anxiety Linked To Serotonin Transporter Gene Variant

Evidence for a gene variant that is believed to be linked to social anxiety has been found by researchers at the University of Bonn. The gene encodes a serotonin transporter in the brain.

Interestingly, this messenger suppresses feelings of anxiety and depression. The scientists want to investigate this cause more precisely and are thus looking for more study participants.

People with social anxiety avoid situations in which they are exposed to judgment by others.  Around one in ten people is affected by this anxiety disorder over the course of their life.

Social Anxiety Genetic Causes

Social phobias are among the psychiatric disorders that are triggered simultaneously by genetic and environmental factors.

Dr. Andreas Forstner from the Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Bonn, says:

“There is still a great deal to be done in terms of researching the genetic causes of this illness. Until now, only a few candidate genes have been known that could be linked to this.”

Together with the Clinic and Policlinic for Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy at the University Hospital Bonn, Dr. Forstner is conducting a study into the genetic causes of social phobia. The research team investigated the DNA of a total of 321 patients and compared it with 804 control individuals.

Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms

Dr. Andreas Forstner

Dr. Andreas Forstner (seated at the front), associate professor (Privatdozent) Dr. Rupert Conrad and psychologist Stefanie Rambau.
Credit: © Foto: Katharina Wislsperger/UKB-Ukom

The focus of the scientists lay on what are known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs).

“There are variable positions in the DNA that can exist to various degrees in different people,” explains Dr. Forstner.

The cause of genetic illnesses often lies in the SNPs. It is estimated that more than thirteen million such changes exist in the human DNA.

The scientists investigated a total of 24 SNPs that are suspected in the widest sense of being the cause of social phobias and other mental disorders. This is the largest association study so far into social phobia, according to associate professor Johannes Schumacher.

Over the course of the study, scientists at the Clinic and Policlinic for Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy at the University Hospital Bonn will ask the patients about their symptoms and the severity of their social phobia. Their DNA is also examined using a blood sample.

Whether there is a link between the signs of the illness and the genes is being investigated by the scientists using statistical methods.

Serotonin Transport

The evaluation of the previously collected data indicated that an SNP in the serotonin transporter gene SLC6A4 is involved in the development of social phobia.

This gene encodes a mechanism in the brain that is involved in transporting the important messenger serotonin. This substance suppresses, among other things, feelings of fear and depressive moods.

“The result substantiates indications from previous studies that serotonin plays an important role in social phobia,”

says associate professor Dr. Rupert Conrad from the Clinic and Policlinic for Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy. Medications that block serotonin reuptake and increase the concentration of the messenger in the tissue fluid in the brain have already long been used to treat anxiety disorders and depression.

The scientists now want to investigate more closely what the links are between the DNA and social phobia. Information about the study, for those who wish to participate, is available at http://www.SocialPhobiaResearch.de.

Andreas J. Forstner, Stefanie Rambau, Nina Friedrich, Kerstin U. Ludwig, Anne C. Böhmer, Elisabeth Mangold, Anna Maaser, Timo Hess, Alexandra Kleiman, Antje Bittner, Markus M. Nöthen, Jessica Becker, Franziska Geiser, Johannes Schumacher, Rupert Conrad
Further evidence for genetic variation at the serotonin transporter gene SLC6A4 contributing toward anxiety
Psychiatric Genetics, 2017; 1 DOI: 10.1097/YPG.0000000000000171

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