Find Information About:

Drugs & Supplements

Get information and reviews on prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, vitamins, and supplements. Search by name or medical condition.

Pill Identifier

Pill Identifier

Having trouble identifying your pills?

Enter the shape, color, or imprint of your prescription or OTC drug. Our pill identification tool will display pictures that you can compare to your pill.

Get Started
My Medicine

My Medicine

Save your medicine, check interactions, sign up for FDA alerts, create family profiles and more.

Get Started

WebMD Health Experts and Community

Talk to health experts and other people like you in WebMD's Communities. It's a safe forum where you can create or participate in support groups and discussions about health topics that interest you.

  • Second Opinion

    Second Opinion

    Read expert perspectives on popular health topics.

  • Community


    Connect with people like you, and get expert guidance on living a healthy life.

Got a health question? Get answers provided by leading organizations, doctors, and experts.

Get Answers

Sign up to receive WebMD's award-winning content delivered to your inbox.

Sign Up

Health & Balance

Font Size

Fear From Our Forefathers?

Study Suggests Genetic Tendency for Anxiety Disorders
WebMD Health News

July 30, 2003 -- Fear is written in our genes, a new study suggests.

One way we learn to be afraid is by fear conditioning. Say you see a picture of a triangle and, at the same time, get a painful electric shock. The next time you see a triangle, you feel fear. That's fear conditioning.

Different people respond to fear conditioning in different ways. That's important because fear conditioning is related to the way anxiety disorders seem to develop. Could there be a genetic basis to how people learn fear?

Maybe so. After all, people can be more easily taught to fear pictures of dangerous things -- snakes and spiders, for example -- than to fear pictures of harmless circles and triangles. This suggests that some fears, at least, are coded in our DNA.

If so, identical twins might hold the answer. Identical twins have exactly the same genes; fraternal twins are as genetically different as non-twin siblings.

Virginia Commonwealth University researcher John M. Hettema, MD, PhD, and colleagues looked at 90 pairs of identical twins and 83 pairs of fraternal twins. Each was shown a picture of a spider, a snake, a circle, and a square. Sometimes one of the pictures came with an "uncomfortable" electric shock. The researchers measured the twins' biological fear responses during all phases of this fear conditioning.

The result: Identical twins were much more likely to react in the same ways to fear conditioning as fraternal twins. Between one-third and one-half of the fear conditioning process appeared to be inherited.

"Now we can say that the fear conditioning process in humans is controlled, at least to some extent, by genetic factors," Hettema says in a news release. "Understanding fear conditioning provides one aspect of how humans develop anxiety symptoms, which could lead to better treatments for these chronic illnesses."

The findings appear in the July issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Today on WebMD

woman in yoga class
6 health benefits of yoga.
beautiful girl lying down of grass
10 relaxation techniques to try.
mature woman with glass of water
Do you really need to drink 8 glasses of water a day?
coffee beans in shape of mug
Get the facts.
Take your medication
Hand appearing to hold the sun
Hungover man
Welcome mat and wellington boots
Woman worn out on couch
Happy and sad faces
Fingertip with string tied in a bow
laughing family