Scientists have identified a particular gene that appears to control the ability to learn and remember frightening experiences and recognize threatening situations, basic skills considered critical to survival.

The gene in question, called stathmin, has been discovered in mice, and researchers say it “firms up the ground from which we can continue to explore the how, when, and why of fear conditioning.”

Mahzarin Banaji, a Harvard University psychology professor not involved in the recent study, says “it gives us new confidence to explore how human beings may both over-respond and under-respond with fear to events in their world. And it creates a stronger bond between the genetics of fear and the psychological and social consequences of fear learning.”

Aiming to help people with anxiety disorders, a research team from Harvard Medical School, Columbia University, Rutgers University, and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that mice genetically engineered to go without stathmin had a reduced ability to react with anxiety in situations where they would normally have been expected to be fearful.

The finding may open doors to anti-anxiety treatments targeting the stathmin gene. The study’s co-author Dr. Eric Kandel of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia University in New York City says,

“This is the tip of the iceberg, and these things take a lot of time, but I think there’s no question that this has the potential for therapy. There aren’t good drugs for the treatment of anxiety, and it’s possible that this will provide a new set of targets for all kinds of problems, ranging from stage fright and phobias to post-traumatic stress disorders.”

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