Anxiety: does it come from our mothers and fathers, or is it something created by our experiences and environment? Studies show that depression and anxiety are both inherited and have roots in the way we live.

Depression and anxiety are common disorders, the average age of onset being 11. About 18% of U.S. adults have experienced some form of anxiety and about 7% have major disorders, according to The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). In hopes of developing interventions to help steer children away from depression and anxiety, University of Wisconsin psychiatrist Ned Kalin searches for the basis of the anxious personality.

If a small child has an anxious personality, for example, they are at a 50% risk of developing a mental disorder. In the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, researchers reported that 30% of anxiety comes from parents or ancestors.

Rhesus Monkeys

Like some humans, rhesus monkeys can have an anxious personality. When confronted by strangers, these guys clam up and stop moving. Their anxiety levels hit the roof! Kalin noticed that small shy children act in the same exact manner.


Information was found by Kalin, using PET scans, by monitoring the brains of several young monkeys, some with anxiety and some without.

Researchers scanned the brains of 592 rhesus monkeys raised in pairs, some with anxiety predisposition and some without. While scanning, a stranger entered the room with the monkeys and refused to make eye contact. This caused a mild disturbance akin to anxiousness. This allowed researchers to monitor what happens within the brain during mildly anxious situations.

Since researchers were aware of how the monkeys were colonized, they understand how inherited anxiety works among the test subjects. In fact, 35% of anxiety variation could be contributed to inherited genes.

Looking a bit further, researchers examined certain regions of the brain attributed to anxiety. These regions that are activated during stressful situations are paired with regions where function and structure were inherited, as in anxiety, with the same patterns.

Functioning of the three brain regions was involved in anxiety and heritable. The structure did not, however, affect an anxious personality.

Three regions

There are three regions of the brain involved in anxiety.

These regions consist of the orbitofrontal cortex located behind the forehead and known as the most advanced part of our brains, the amygdala, an almond-shaped area found within the deepest part of the brain, and associated with emotion and the limbic system, located at the base of the brainstem and is found in beings advanced and primitive.

Kalin says,

“We find that anxious brains are more active. They have evolved to deal with threats and see mild alerts as major issues. They have become supercritical. We find that overactivity is inherited. The overactivity could lead to major depression and anxiety, except for the fact that 70% of anxiety comes from outer stimulus and can be dealt with early on. The focus now is to help children with overactive brains steer clear of developing mental disorders.”

Kalin believes it is wise to continue with the use of the rhesus monkeys. We have to understand the systems of the brain and interactions with fear regions. Researchers are also following young children with an anxious personality to find out the difference in why some of these children develop anxiety disorders and some do not.

The support and love of caregivers are one factor that prevents anxiety disorders in young children, this part is known. Unfortunately, there are many other factors at play here.

According to Kalin,

“Anxiety is a very serious illness that affects numerous people. We need to understand what causes these disorders and how to correctly treat the illness.”

Animal rights activists have tried to stop Kalin’s work, stating that he puts his subjects through extreme stress during tests. Many think this is untrue and others see Kalin’s work as necessary in order to find answers to anxiety and depression and how they can be prevented.

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