As the personal genomics era dawns, it becomes clear that the new genetic information will lead to more new questions than answers. Consider a well-intentioned parent who finds any number of suspicious risk factors in the genome of their child. Perhaps a genetic risk variant for mental illness – an anxiety disorder perhaps? What can be done? What, if anything, should be done?
Of course there is no simple answer to this question. Nevertheless, the technology itself may create strong demand for answers in the near future. If it were me, I certainly would want to know – something, anything – to help. Furthermore, there are already examples of willful misinformation in the consumer genetic marketplace that seem to prey on anxieties of parents, and which could ultimately heighten the need for reliable, evidence-based guidance.
To this end, the recent research article entitled, “A Genetically Informed Study of the Association Between Childhood Separation Anxiety, Sensitivity to CO2, Panic Disorder, and the Effect of Childhood Parental Loss“[Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2009;66(1):64-71], caught my attention. In this article, the authors consider Panic Disorder, a condition which can lead to the disruption of a healthy personal and professional life. Genetic studies have shown that specific genes can contribute to the risk of the disorder, but also that these genes interact with early life and adult life experience. What might these genes be doing in early life – and if we knew – then might we intervene early on to prevent the onset of the disorder later in life?
Again, there are more questions than answers here, but the research team of Battaglia et al., show – using 712 young adult twins – that a common genetic factor underlies childhood separation anxiety and the adult onset of panic disorder. Thus, it may be the case that the sames genes that contribute to the risk of panic disorder, also may contribute to a form of childhood anxiety. Having found evidence for a particular form of developmental continuity, the research team is one step closer to learning how a genomically-guided child-based early intervention might be structured.
Because there are many pathways that can lead to mental illness and many ways in which the genome interacts with the environment – it will be complex, if not impossible, to design early interventions that prevent the onset of mental illness. In most cases, it is rather likely that most children who carry risk for mental illness, will – due to the probablistic nature of gene-gene and gene-environment interactions – just develop typically and not develop mental illness. Neverthess, some will and its worth learning more.