Millions of people—some 2 percent of the U.S. population—experience panic attacks, characterized by sudden fear accompanied by rapid heartbeat, nausea, shaking, numbness, hyperventilating or sweating. Many end up in emergency rooms, believing they are having a heart attack. What is more, one third of patients who visit a cardiologist with atypical chest pain actually suffer from unrecognized panic disorder.

Now scientists are trying to identify genetic markers that could help predict who is prone to the terrifying condition and provide a possible avenue for new drugs that could alleviate symptoms.

To reach this goal, researchers at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons are taking a two-pronged approach: tracking genes in panicky animals and hunting for similar genes in people with varying degrees of fear. Recent animal tests point to interesting hot spots on several chromosomes. Their locations have led Columbia epidemiologist Myrna Weissman and Nobel laureate Eric R. Kandel of the school's Center for Neurobiology and Behavior to look for genetic markers in human volunteers. Other investigators have linked two genes, COMT and Adora2A, to panic disorder in people. Dozens more genes could be involved. “There is definitely a strong genetic component,” Weissman says. Individuals with a close relative suffering from panic have a fivefold increase in risk.

Having genes in hand will help unravel the syndrome's biochemical causes and aid in diagnosis. Currently the average victim sees 10 physicians before getting a correct diagnosis.