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Mapping Primal Fears
By Adam Marcus

Phobias—such as the fear of spiders, snakes or heights—seem to run in families. By studying families with a history of panic disorders, scientists have identified a region of chromosome 14 that may contain a gene linked to a common anxiety disorder called "simple phobia."

“We’ve mapped a gene to a rather broad region of the genome,” says Joel Gelernter, a psychiatrist at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut. “Our next step will be to narrow down that region.”

Animals such as spiders and snakes are among the stimuli that can evoke phobic responses.

People with simple phobia avoid things like heights or animals or having their blood drawn because they provoke an unusually high amount of anxiety, fear or distress.

Phobias are complex behaviors that probably involve many genes acting in concert, as well as environmental stimuli to trigger a response. The region of chromosome 14 contains several genes implicated in full-blown panic attacks that will now be tested for their roles in simple phobia.

In addition, the region of chromosome 14 corresponds to a region in mice associated with anxiety. The findings are reported in Molecular Psychiatry.

Phobias aren’t all bad. From an evolutionary perspective, fear has certainly been a good thing, protecting humans. “It was probably good for our species that some people in certain high-risk environments didn’t like to play with snakes and spiders,” says Gelernter.

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Gelernter, J. et al. A chromosome 14 risk locus for simple phobia: results from a genomewide linkage scan. Mol Psychiatry 8, 71-82 (March 2003).

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