The genetic and environmental structure of fear and anxiety in juvenile twins

Am J Med Genet B Neuropsychiatr Genet. 2019 Apr;180(3):204-212. doi: 10.1002/ajmg.b.32714. Epub 2019 Feb 1.


Fear and anxiety are conceptualized as responses to acute or potential threat, respectively. Adult twin studies found substantial interplay between genetic and environmental factors influencing fear disorders (phobias) and anxiety disorders. Research in children, however, has largely examined these factors independently. Thus, there exists a substantial knowledge gap regarding the underlying etiologic structure of these closely-related constructs during development. Symptom counts for five fear (criticism, the unknown, death, animal, medical) and four anxiety (generalized, panic, separation, social) dimensions were obtained for 373 twin pairs ages 9-14. Multivariate twin modeling was performed to elucidate the genetic and environmental influences distributed amongst these dimensions. The best fitting model contained one genetic, two familial environmental, and two unique environmental factors shared between fear and anxiety symptoms plus dimension-specific genetic and unique environmental factors. Although several environmental factors were shared between fear and anxiety dimensions, one latent factor accounted for genetic influences across both domains. While adult studies find somewhat distinct etiological differences between anxiety and phobic disorders, the current results suggest that their relative genetic and environmental influences are not as clearly demarcated in children. These etiological distinctions are more nuanced, likely contributing to the highly diffuse symptom patterns seen during development.

Keywords: anxiety; behavioral genetics; fear; heritability; twin study.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Anxiety / etiology
  • Anxiety / genetics
  • Anxiety / psychology*
  • Anxiety Disorders / etiology
  • Anxiety Disorders / genetics
  • Anxiety Disorders / psychology
  • Child
  • Diseases in Twins / genetics
  • Fear / psychology*
  • Female
  • Gene-Environment Interaction
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Genetic
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Sex Factors
  • Twins / genetics
  • Twins / psychology*
  • Twins, Dizygotic / genetics
  • Twins, Monozygotic / genetics