Primal Numbers – Afraid Not

Fear is a valuable instinct that can save your life, but when that instinct malfunctions, anxiety can destroy people’s lives. Now, science might have found a way to turn off your fear genes. The question is, should we really start tinkering with genes to deal with our phobias?

It’s a question that, in the not-too-distant future, could be more than academic for the millions of people who suffer from phobias and anxiety. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada, phobias and anxiety affect “about 12% of all Canadians in any given year.”

In the US, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) notes that anxiety disorders affect just over 18 per cent of American adults in a given year. That’s roughly 40 million people.

So it comes as good news that scientists might have found a way to end those phobias for good, by altering the genes that regulate fear. As the Science Alert site reports, fear-related memories play a key role in “phobias and conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Apparently, a mechanism that controls certain genes is responsible for a process called fear extinction. In other words, once a particular danger is gone, the extinction process turns the fear response off (or at least way down). But sometimes our DNA doesn’t work right and that process doesn’t get initiated. The result can be crippling levels of anxiety that, in severe cases, make daily life a misery.

Still, the idea of manipulating our DNA to regulate emotional responses isn’t one to take lightly. Our emotional circuitry is highly complex, and altering certain aspects of it could have serious, unforeseen consequences. For instance, fear is a necessary instinct. It tells us to run at the sight of a tiger, and can send warning chills up our neck even when danger isn’t immediately apparent. What might happen if manipulating someone’s genes means that their fear response gets turned down a little too low?

Critics could also argue that there are already proven methods to cope with anxiety and phobias. Every day, millions of sufferers find relief through tools like cognitive behaviour therapy and medication. Do we really need to venture into manipulating DNA?

The answer is yes, we do. Or at the very least, we should continue such promising research. Because the simple truth is that many mental health issues are no different than physical health issues. They have biological and chemical causes that, thankfully, researchers are learning more about every day.

In fact, as this fascinating Telegraph article reports, fears and phobias caused by traumatic events might actually alter DNA and be passed down in genes from one generation to the next. Experiments at Atlanta’s Emory University School of Medicine showed that, in mice, “experiences are somehow transferred from the brain into the genome, allowing them to be passed on to later generations.”

Just as research in the field of gene therapy holds potential for conditions like cystic fibrosis and some types of cancer, science could prove that DNA holds clear solutions to health issues that were once mocked as being all in a patient’s head.

To be sure, DNA isn’t the only cause of anxiety, and science hasn’t found a magic solution to relieve phobias. But fear not?that answer might one day come.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.

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