1. Study suggests meditation and yoga can ‘reverse’ DNA reactions which cause stress

    June 26, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Coventry University press release:

    Mind-body interventions (MBIs) such as meditation, yoga and Tai Chi don’t simply relax us; they can ‘reverse’ the molecular reactions in our DNA which cause ill-health and depression, according to a study by the universities of Coventry and Radboud.

    The research, published in the journal Frontiers in Immunology, reviews over a decade of studies analysing how the behaviour of our genes is affected by different MBIs including mindfulness and yoga.

    Experts from the universities conclude that, when examined together, the 18 studies — featuring 846 participants over 11 years — reveal a pattern in the molecular changes which happen to the body as a result of MBIs, and how those changes benefit our mental and physical health.

    The researchers focus on how gene expression is affected; in other words the way that genes activate to produce proteins which influence the biological make-up of the body, the brain and the immune system.

    When a person is exposed to a stressful event, their sympathetic nervous system (SNS) — the system responsible for the ‘fight-or-flight’ response — is triggered, in turn increasing production of a molecule called nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB) which regulates how our genes are expressed.

    NF-kB translates stress by activating genes to produce proteins called cytokines that cause inflammation at cellular level — a reaction that is useful as a short-lived fight-or-flight reaction, but if persistent leads to a higher risk of cancer, accelerated aging and psychiatric disorders like depression.

    According to the study, however, people who practise MBIs exhibit the opposite effect — namely a decrease in production of NF-kB and cytokines, leading to a reversal of the pro-inflammatory gene expression pattern and a reduction in the risk of inflammation-related diseases and conditions.

    The study’s authors say the inflammatory effect of the fight-or-flight response — which also serves to temporarily bolster the immune system — would have played an important role in humankind’s hunter-gatherer prehistory, when there was a higher risk of infection from wounds.

    In today’s society, however, where stress is increasingly psychological and often longer-term, pro-inflammatory gene expression can be persistent and therefore more likely to cause psychiatric and medical problems.

    Lead investigator Ivana Buric from the Brain, Belief and Behaviour Lab in Coventry University’s Centre for Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement said:

    “Millions of people around the world already enjoy the health benefits of mind-body interventions like yoga or meditation, but what they perhaps don’t realise is that these benefits begin at a molecular level and can change the way our genetic code goes about its business.

    “These activities are leaving what we call a molecular signature in our cells, which reverses the effect that stress or anxiety would have on the body by changing how our genes are expressed. Put simply, MBIs cause the brain to steer our DNA processes along a path which improves our wellbeing.

    “More needs to be done to understand these effects in greater depth, for example how they compare with other healthy interventions like exercise or nutrition. But this is an important foundation to build on to help future researchers explore the benefits of increasingly popular mind-body activities.”


  2. Study suggests meditation as a possible alternative to traditional pain medication

    June 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Leeds Beckett University press release:

    Just ten minutes of mindfulness meditation could be used as an alternative to painkillers, according to research by Leeds Beckett University.

    Results of the study suggest that a single ten-minute mindfulness meditation session administered by a novice therapist can improve pain tolerance, pain threshold and decrease anxiety towards pain.

    The research was carried out by the School of Clinical and Applied Sciences at Leeds Beckett and used a group of 24 healthy university-aged students (12 men and 12 women). They were randomly split into a control group and a meditation group.

    A cold-pressor task was used to cause pain to the participants; they put their hand in warm water for two minutes before removing it and placing it immediately into ice water for as long as they could manage and only removed it when the pain became too much and could no longer be tolerated. They then either sat quietly for ten minutes (control group) or meditated for ten minutes before repeating the cold-pressor task.

    Five groups of data were then collected; anxiety towards pain, pain threshold, pain tolerance, pain intensity and pain unpleasantness. Pre-intervention the figures didn’t differ greatly between the control and meditation groups but following the ten-minute meditation session, the participants from the meditation group saw a significant decrease in anxiety towards pain and a significant increase in pain threshold and pain tolerance.

    Speaking about the results of the study, Dr Osama Tashani, Senior Research Fellow in Pain Studies, said: “While further research is needed to explore this in a more clinical setting on chronic pain patients, these results do show that a brief mindfulness meditation intervention can be of benefit in pain relief. The ease of application and cost effectiveness of the mindfulness meditation may also make it a viable addition to the arsenal of therapies for pain management.

    “The mindfulness mediation was led by a researcher who was a novice; so in theory clinicians could administer this with little training needed. It’s based on traditional Buddhist teachings which focuses attention and awareness on your breathing.”


  3. Study examines range of challenging meditation experiences

    June 10, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Brown University press release:

    Meditation is increasingly being marketed as a treatment for conditions such as pain, depression, stress and addiction, and while many people achieve therapeutic goals, other meditators encounter a much broader range of experiences — sometimes distressing and even impairing ones — along the way.

    That’s according to a new study in PLOS ONE, in which Willoughby Britton, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University, and co-authors chronicled and categorized such experiences as well as the factors that influence them.

    Many effects of meditation are well known, like increased awareness of thoughts and emotions, or improved calm and well-being,” said study lead author Jared Lindahl, visiting assistant professor in Brown’s Cogut Center for the Humanities. “But there is a much broader range of possible experiences. Exactly what those experiences are, how they affect individuals and which ones show up as difficult is going to be based on a range of personal, interpersonal and contextual factors.”

    The Varieties of Contemplative Experience study

    The study purposely sought out “challenging” experiences because they are underrepresented in the scientific literature, the authors said. With that goal, the study therefore was not designed to estimate how common those experiences are among all meditators. Instead the purpose of the Varieties of Contemplative Experience study was to provide detailed descriptions of experiences and to start to understand the multiple ways they are interpreted, why they might happen and what meditators and teachers do to deal with them.

    Though rare in the scientific literature, the broader range of effects including meditation-related difficulties have been documented in Buddhist traditions, the researchers wrote. For example, Tibetans refer to a wide range of experiences — some blissful but some painful or disturbing — as “nyams.” Zen Buddhists use the term “maky?” to refer to certain perceptual disturbances.

    “While the positive effects have made the transition from Buddhist texts and traditions to contemporary clinical applications, the use of meditation for health and well-being has obscured the wider range of experiences and purposes traditionally associated with Buddhist meditation,” Lindahl said.

    To understand the range of experiences encountered among Western Buddhists practicing meditation, Britton, Lindahl and their co-authors interviewed nearly 100 meditators and meditation teachers from each of three main traditions: Therav?da, Zen and Tibetan. Each interview told a story, which the researchers meticulously coded and analyzed using qualitative research methodology.

    The researchers also employed standardized causality assessment methods that are used by agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Adminisration to ensure that meditation likely played a causal role in the experiences they documented.

    Experiences and influences

    Based upon their interviews, the researchers developed a taxonomy of 59 experiences organized into seven types, or “domains”: cognitive, perceptual, affective (i.e. emotions and moods), somatic (relating to the body), conative (i.e. motivation or will), sense of self and social. They also identified another 26 categories of “influencing factors” or conditions that may impact the intensity, duration or associated distress or impairment.

    All meditators reported multiple unexpected experiences from across the seven domains of experience. For example, a commonly reported challenging experience in the perceptual domain was hypersensitivity to light or sound, while somatic changes such as insomnia or involuntary body movements were also reported. Challenging emotional experiences could include fear, anxiety, panic or a loss of emotions altogether.

    Britton noted that the duration of the effects people described in their interviews also varied widely, ranging from a few days to months to more than a decade.

    Sometimes experiences were ostensibly desirable, such as feelings of unity or oneness with others, but some meditators reported them going too far, lasting too long or feeling violated, exposed or disoriented. Others who had meditation experiences that felt positive during retreats reported that the persistence of these experiences interfered with their ability to function or work when they left the retreat and returned to normal life.

    “This is a good example of how a contextual factor can affect associated distress and functioning,” Lindahl said. “An experience that is positive and desirable in one situation may become a burden in another.”

    Moreover, in some cases, an experience that some meditators reported as challenging, others reported as positive. To understand why this was the case, the researchers also aimed to determine the “influencing factors” that affect the desirability, intensity, duration and impact of a given experience.

    The researchers documented four main domains of influencing factors: practitioner-related (i.e. the meditator’s personal attributes), practice-related (such as how they meditated), relationships (interpersonal factors) and health behaviors (such as diet, sleep or exercise). For example, a meditator’s relationship with the instructor was for some people a source of support and for others a source of distress.

    While many teachers cited the meditator’s practice intensity, psychiatric history or trauma history, and quality of supervision as important, these factors appeared to play a role only for some meditators. The researchers wrote in PLOS ONE that in many cases, challenging experiences could not be attributed to just those factors:

    “The results also challenge other common causal attributions, such as the assumption that meditation-related difficulties only happen to individuals with a pre-existing condition (psychiatric or trauma history), who are on long or intensive retreats, who are poorly supervised, who are practicing incorrectly, or who have inadequate preparation.”

    Toward improved understanding and support

    Rather than conclusive causes, Britton described the influencing factors the research identified as “testable hypotheses” of what might impact a meditator’s trajectory. For example, future research could investigate whether certain types of practice are associated with different kinds of challenging experiences, or whether the degree of perceived social support influences the duration of distress and impairment.

    “It is likely that an interaction of multiple factors is at play,” Lindahl said. “Each meditator had their own unique story.”

    I i’s important to acknowledge that this study represents an initial step in a much longer discussion and investigation, Britton said: “The take-home message is that meditation-related challenges are a topic worthy of further investigation, but there is still a lot more to understand.”

    For example, the study did not investigate meditation-related challenges in the context of mindfulness-based interventions, in children or in clinical populations. Furthermore, Britton said, little is known about the neurobiological mechanisms of these experiences. The authors have already developed one potential model for some experiences, but there likely will be different mechanisms for different experiences, and they hope other researchers will join the inquiry.

    If research can uncover why challenging experiences arise, then meditators and teachers might be in a better position to manage them, Britton and Lindahl said. But even before that, they hope the new study can help people recognize that adverse experiences are not necessarily unique to them or their fault. Britton noted that in a societal context in which meditation is often discussed as producing only positive results, meditators can feel stigmatized and isolated if they experience a problem.

    “During the interviews, some people learned for the first time that they are not completely alone in having had this experience,” Lindahl said. “The social awareness we think this project can raise could be a key way of addressing some of the problems.”

    One of the remedies people cited for dealing with problems was simply having someone they could talk to who was familiar with challenging meditation experiences, the researchers said. Britton recently started a weekly online support group where meditators can share their challenges with each other.

    “Our long-term hope is that this research, and the research that follows, can be used by the meditation community to create support systems for the full range of meditation-related experiences,” Britton said. “Really, the first step is acknowledging the diversity of experiences that different people can have.”


  4. Does stress lead to lengthier periods of sick leave?

    June 5, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Deutsches Ärzteblatt International press release:

    The duration of a person’s unfitness for work is determined by more than his/her primary diagnosis. Patients often report psychological problems and a feeling of being burnt out. Antonius Schneider and colleagues analyzed whether an association exists between such psychological symptoms and the length of sick leave, even if patients received their sick note because of purely physical symptoms, such as back pain.

    The researchers studied the data of 225 patients, from 14 general practices, who had been issued with a sickness certificate. The diagnoses that prompted the sick leave varied. Respiratory disorders and disorders of the musculoskeletal system were the most common diagnoses. The longest mean periods of sick leave were documented for patients with diagnoses of skin diseases and mental disorders. All study participants completed a questionnaire that included the Maslach Burnout Inventory, General Survey, and Patient Health Questionnaire, with the scales depression, somatization, and anxiety. Patients’ characteristics such as sex, age, relationship status, and educational attainment were also captured.

    For the total study population, doctors’ sick notes were associated with longer periods of sick leave in patients with a lower level of educational attainment (less than 10 years of schooling), independently of the primary diagnosis. An association existed between the length of the sick leave period and emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, depression, anxiety, and somatization. When study participants were excluded whose unfitness for work was primarily due to psychological and psychiatric diagnoses, the sick leave period correlated with emotional exhaustion, somatization, and — almost statistically significantly — with depression. Sex and relationship status were not relevant.

    In a secondary analysis, age and formal education were associated with the duration of sick leave. Each year of increase in age led to an increase in the length of the sick leave period by 1.7%. In persons with higher levels of education, the length of sick leave was reduced by 40%. In terms of the psychological burden, an association of anxiety symptoms with the duration of unfitness to work was primarily noted.

    The authors conclude that a holistic approach in patient-centered communication, such as is applied in case of depression and anxiety, may be helpful in psychological or physical symptoms of unknown origin during the consultation with the primary care physician.


  5. Mindfulness takes practice

    June 2, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Aarhus University press release:

    The typical student on a standard mindfulness course says they practice for 30 minutes at home every day, and it actually makes a difference, a new study from Aarhus University in Denmark, finds. This is the case, even though teachers ask for more. But can we rely on what people say?

    Mindfulness meditation practice is set at 45 minutes a day at home, as well as weekly group sessions with the teacher. And the 45 minutes is every day, six days a week for the eight weeks that the course lasts.

    These are the guidelines for students taking part in the standard Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses. Not all students practice for 45 minutes a day. An average course student practices 30 minutes daily at home, but the good news is that nevertheless, this practice is related to positive benefit. This can be measured as reduced stress, pain, better well-being and so on.

    These are the main findings of the study “Home practice in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: a systematic review and meta-analysis of participants’ mindfulness practice and its associations with outcomes,” an international collaboration between the Universities of Aarhus, Oxford and Bristol. The study has recently been published in the journal Behavior Research and Therapy, and according to associate professor Christine Parsons from the Interacting Mind Center at the Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University, it is new and important knowledge:

    “This is the clearest evidence we have that mindfulness-home practice can make a difference. This is a big source of debate because there are many components at play in a MBSR or MBCT course. The support of a teacher might bring about benefit, practicing mindfulness on the actual course, or being in a group with similar other people,” Christine Parsons says.

    According to the study, the effect of doing home practice is small, but statistically significant in the 28 scientific studies included in the analysis. In all studies, the MBCT or MBSR courses were eight weeks long, and the participants kept diaries of their practice at home. The diaries were used by researchers to examine the benefits of practice. Unfortunately, there is always uncertainty linked to a self-report diary, which Christine Parsons is trying to minimize.

    Can we rely on students to tell their own teacher about their home practice? Do student fill in their diaries faithfully? We know that people have difficulty reporting on their food or alcohol consumption or even physical activity. Should mindfulness practice be any different?

    Similarly, Christine Parsons is concerned about the difference between quantity of mindfulness practice and the of practice. Anyone who has tried to meditate knows that practice can be difficult. For example, it is easy to spend time thinking about a conflict at work or writing a long mental shopping list. Mindfulness practice is about cultivating awareness of the present moment, without judging or evaluating, not just spending time on a yoga mat.

    “We need to understand how people truly engage with their home practice. There are many problems with self-report as our only assessment method. I have therefore received money from Trygfonden to develop and test a number of other measurement methods that will clarify how mindfulness students behave outside the classroom. How they practice and what works — and how it works,” Christine Parsons says.

    She worked at Oxford University for the past six years, but she has moved her research to the Interacting Minds Center at Aarhus, where she will remain as long as the grant of 2.3 millioner kroner pays for her stay.

    Christine Parsons in collaboration with engineers from Aarhus University, led by associate professor Kasper Løvborg Jensen and the Danish Center for Mindfulness, is developing an app that records how long participants listen to the guided meditations, which are part of the home practice in MBCT or MBSR.

    The information will be sent via the mobile phone app to a server that registers and compares the incoming data with information from a ‘fitness’ wristband. This enables the research team to see what happens to, for example, the student’s heartbeat when he or she is practicing mindfulness.

    “It’s all little pieces of the big jigsaw puzzle — how students actually behave outside the classroom. How they practice, what it means, and what actually works,” says Christine Parsons, without wanting to undermine the importance of the recently published result.

    “This study forms the basis of our new work, and now we know, that practicing at home has an impact. The question is whether we can use new technology to measure and support participants doing their home practice. And can we support behavior changes in the long run? For example, if you receive a smartphone reminder to practice,” Christine Parsons says before she — again — praises the unique opportunities for interdisciplinary research at the Interacting Minds Center.

    “It’s invaluable to sit down with an engineer who poses completely different questions than I can imagine with my psychology background. It opens for a lot of new opportunities. Bringing together mindfulness teachers, engineers and designers allows us to really think about what we can do to best support our students,” says Christine Parsons.


  6. Research evaluates effectiveness of yoga in treating major depression

    May 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Care New England press release:

    When treating depression, the goal is to help individuals achieve full recovery and normal functioning. While traditional treatment such as medication or psychotherapy is effective for many patients, some may not fully recover even with these treatments. Researchers sought to determine if the addition of hatha yoga would improve treatment outcomes for these patients. They found that the benefits of yoga were less pronounced early in treatment, but may accumulate over time.

    The research, entitled “Adjunctive yoga v. health education for persistent major depression: a randomized controlled trial,” has been published in Psychological Medicine. The research was led by Lisa Uebelacker, PhD, a research psychologist in the Psychosocial Research Department at Butler Hospital, a Care New England hospital, and an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. The team also included Gary Epstein-Lubow, MD; Ana M. Abrantes, PhD; Audrey Tyrka, MD, PhD; Brandon A. Gaudiano, PhD; and Ivan W. Miller III, PhD, of Butler Hospital and the Warren Alpert Medical School; Geoffrey Tremont, PhD and Tanya Tran of Rhode Island Hospital and the Warren Alpert Medical School; Tom Gillette of Eyes of the World Yoga; and David Strong of the University of California, San Diego.

    “The purpose of this study was to examine whether hatha yoga is effective for treating depression when used in addition to antidepressant medication,” explained Dr. Uebelacker. “We did not see statistically significant differences between hatha yoga and a control group (health education) at 10 weeks, however, when we examined outcomes over a period of time including the three and six months after yoga classes ended, we found yoga was superior to health education in alleviating depression symptoms.”

    According to Dr. Uebelacker, this is the largest study of yoga for depression to date. The team enrolled individuals with current or recent major depression who were receiving antidepressant medication and continued to have clinically significant depression symptoms. Participants were randomized into two groups – those who participated in a hatha yoga class and a control group who took part in a health education class. The intervention phase lasted 10 weeks and participants were followed for six months afterward.

    “We hypothesized that yoga participants would show lower depression severity over time as assessed by the Quick Inventory of Depression Symptomatology (QIDS), as well as better social and role functioning, better general health perceptions and physical functioning, and less physical pain relative to the control group,” said Dr. Uebelacker. “We found that yoga did indeed have an impact on depression symptoms.”


  7. Study suggests giving partner a massage can help relieve stress

    May 10, 2017 by Ashley

    From the British Psychological Society press release:

    Giving your partner a massage can improve both their wellbeing and yours.

    That is the key finding of research by Sayuri Naruse and Dr Mark Moss from Northumbria University that is being presented at the British Psychological Society’s Annual Conference in Brighton.

    Ms Naruse, the lead researcher, commented, “The benefits of receiving a massage from a professional are well documented, but this research shows how a similar outcome can be obtained by couples with little prior training and experience of the activity.”

    A total of 38 participants completed a three-week massage course, assessing their wellbeing via questionnaires before and after massage sessions across eight areas of physical and mental wellbeing, stress, coping and relationship satisfaction.

    The couples’ wellbeing, perceived stress and coping was positively impacted by the massage course, with none of these effects having significantly decreased at a follow up three weeks after the end of the reporting period.

    Couples also found that their physical and emotional wellbeing had significantly improved following the completion of each massage session.

    Crucially, this was equally apparent whether the participant was giving or receiving the massage.

    Of the couples who took part in the study, 91 per cent said that they would recommend mutual massage to their friends and family.

    With past research having shown that couples tend to operate as a pair when coping with stress, giving each other a massage may also help to ensure relationship stability.

    Ms Naruse added, “These findings show that massage can be a simple and effective way for couples to improve their physical and mental wellbeing whilst showing affection for one another.

    “Our data also suggests that these positive effects of a short massage course may be long lasting, as is reflected in 74 per cent of the sample continuing to use massage after the course had finished.

    “Massage is a cost effective and pleasant intervention that isn’t just for a therapeutic setting but can be easily incorporated into a healthy couple’s daily routine.”


  8. Study suggests 10 minutes of meditation may help anxious people focus

    May 5, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Waterloo press release:

    Just 10 minutes of daily mindful mediation can help prevent your mind from wandering and is particularly effective if you tend to have repetitive, anxious thoughts, according to a study from the University of Waterloo.

    The study, which assessed the impact of meditation with 82 participants who experience anxiety, found that developing an awareness of the present moment reduced incidents of repetitive, off-task thinking, a hallmark of anxiety.

    “Our results indicate that mindfulness training may have protective effects on mind wandering for anxious individuals,” said Mengran Xu, a researcher and PhD candidate at Waterloo. “We also found that meditation practice appears to help anxious people to shift their attention from their own internal worries to the present-moment external world, which enables better focus on a task at hand.”

    The term mindfulness is commonly defined as paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgement.

    As part of the study, participants were asked to perform a task on a computer while experiencing interruptions to gauge their ability to stay focused on the task. Researchers then put the participants into two groups at random, with the control group given an audio story to listen to and the other group asked to engage in a short meditation exercise prior to being reassessed.

    “Mind wandering accounts for nearly half of any person’s daily stream of consciousness,” said Xu. “For people with anxiety, repetitive off-task thoughts can negatively affect their ability to learn, to complete tasks, or even function safely.

    “It would be interesting to see what the impacts would be if mindful meditation was practiced by anxious populations more widely.”


  9. Study suggests rosemary aroma can aid children’s working memory

    May 4, 2017 by Ashley

    From the British Psychological Society press release:

    Exposure to the aroma of rosemary essential oil can significantly enhance working memory in children.

    This is one the findings of a study presented today, Thursday 4 May 2017, by Dr Mark Moss and Victoria Earle of Northumbria University at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference in Brighton.

    Dr Mark Moss said: “Our previous study demonstrated the aroma of rosemary essential oil could enhance cognition in healthy adults. Knowing how important working memory is in academic achievement we wanted to see if similar effects could be found in school age children in classroom settings.”

    A total of 40 children aged 10 to 11 took part in a class based test on different mental tasks. Children were randomly assigned to a room that had either rosemary oil diffused in it for ten minutes or a room with no scent.

    The children were tested individually, seated at the table opposite the researcher. After introducing herself to the child the researcher said: “You are here to play some memory games. Please don’t be nervous but try the best you can to remember what I ask you to.”

    Analysis revealed that the children in the aroma room received significantly higher scores than the non-scented room. The test to recall words demonstrated the greatest different in scores.

    Dr Moss said: “Why and how rosemary has this effect is still up for debate. It could be that aromas affect electrical activity in the brain or that pharmacologically active compounds can be absorbed when adults are exposed.

    “We do know that poor working memory is related to poor academic performance and these findings offers a possible cost effective and simple intervention to improve academic performance in children. The time is ripe for large-scale trials of aroma application in education settings.”


  10. Study suggests social phobia may be affected by genes

    March 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Bonn press release:

    People with social anxiety avoid situations in which they are exposed to judgment by others. Those affected also lead a withdrawn life and maintain contact above all on the Internet. Around one in ten people is affected by this anxiety disorder over the course of their life. Researchers at the University of Bonn have now found evidence for a gene that is believed to be linked to the illness. It encodes a serotonin transporter in the brain. Interestingly, this messenger suppresses feelings of anxiety and depressiveness. The scientists want to investigate this cause more precisely and are thus looking for more study participants. The results will be published in the journal Psychiatric Genetics.

    Heart palpitations, trembling and shortness of breath: those who suffer from social phobia avoid larger groups. Verbal tests or everyday arrangements are filled with fear — after all, other people could make a negative judgement. Those affected often avoid such situations for this reason. Contact is often easier over social media or anonymously over the Internet. Social phobias are among the psychiatric disorders that are triggered simultaneously by genetic and environmental factors. “There is still a great deal to be done in terms of researching the genetic causes of this illness,” says Dr. Andreas Forstner from the Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Bonn. “Until now, only a few candidate genes have been known that could be linked to this.”

    Individual base pairs can vary in the DNA

    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. 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,” says associate professor (Privatdozent) Johannes Schumacher from the Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Bonn.

    Patients provided information about their symptoms

    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. 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 (Privatdozent) 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.

    Subjects can participate in expanded study

    The scientists now want to investigate more closely what the links are between the DNA and social phobia. “In order to achieve this goal, we need many more study participants who suffer from social anxiety,” says the psychologist and study coordinator Stefanie Rambau from the Clinic and Policlinic for Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy at University Hospital Bonn. Information about the study is available at http://www.SocialPhobiaResearch.de. “Those who take part will help to research social phobia. This is the basis of better diagnosis and treatment procedures in the future,” says Stefanie Rambau.