STANFORD, Calif. – Most mothers hope to pass down to their daughters things such as musical ability, intelligence or family heirlooms – anything but medical problems. Panic disorder is one such problem easily handed down from mother to daughter, however. A Stanford University School of Medicine study is aiming to identify ways to prevent this unfortunate inheritance.
The study, led by Kimberly Wilson, PhD, a fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, will examine physical symptoms and thought patterns of daughters whose mothers have panic disorder. The work is the first in a line of investigations that could help determine who is most likely to develop panic disorder and where prevention programs might intervene.
“We’re most concerned with what’s happening in these girls’ learning environment that makes them more vulnerable to developing panic disorder,” said Wilson, who is seeking mothers and their teenage daughters to volunteer for her study. “We want to understand how mothers with panic disorder can help minimize the risk of anxiety developing in their daughters.”
Panic disorder is marked by unpredictable attacks of anxiety accompanied by physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness and trembling. “Someone in the midst of an attack often fears she’s dying or thinks she’s going crazy or losing control,” said Wilson. People with the disorder, which affects 5 percent of the population, often become afraid of their physical responses and go out of their way to block them.
“What’s most scary to a patient is the panic attack itself, so people start avoiding situations that they associate with their attacks,” said Wilson, adding that panic sufferers also have an increased tendency to interpret situations, even seemingly benign ones, as threatening. “They might stop driving, going to a crowded theater or even attending church.”
The exact cause of panic disorder is unknown, but there is a strong family component; Wilson said the prevalence of the disorder among individuals who have a family member with the disorder is more than five times greater than among individuals with no family history. Researchers believe some aspects of the disorder are learned. For instance if a mother demonstrates fearful behavior in certain situations, her daughter may eventually exhibit the behavior.
Although twice as many women as men are afflicted with panic disorder, little research has targeted mothers and daughters. Wilson said her study will focus on at-risk girls at a “critial timepoint” – after they’ve been exposed to their mother’s illness but before they’ve developed the disorder themselves – and identify factors that make them more likely to develop panic disorder.
The study will involve 30 mothers – 15 with panic disorder, 15 without – and their teenage daughters. During the study, Wilson will evaluate the girls’ sensitivity to panic symptoms and response to situations they perceive as threatening. She will compare the thought patterns of the at-risk daughters with the girls who have no family history of panic disorder.
Wilson is recruiting women with and without panic disorder along with their daughters, ages 12 to 17. The daughters must not have been diagnosed with panic disorder.
Volunteers will be paid $50 for their participation in two two-hour visits, which will include interviews, questionnaires and a computer test. Interested volunteers should call (650) 723-6308 or e-mail [email protected].
Wilson’s collaborator on the study is Chris Hayward, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.
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