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Nervous chickens may hold the answer for treating schizophrenia in humans

Posted on 05-12-16 in Anxiety, Mental Health, Research

Nervous chickens may hold the answer for treating schizophrenia in humans

Chickens are not just used as poultry to throw on the barbecue or bake in the oven. The behavior among chickens is quite extraordinary and by analyzing their every move, scientists have been able to associate chickens’ genetic makeup with human mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Anxiety genes identified

“In a new study published in the journal Genetics, evolutionary biologist Dominic Wright and his team looked at whether there’s a genetic connection between anxious behavior in chickens, mice and humans,” according to an article in the Sun Sentinel.

The researchers bred a group of calm chickens with a group of wild chickens for eight generations and then put these chickens to the test. The chickens were placed in a highly lit arena and their behaviors were closely observed. The researchers compared the chickens that stayed on the periphery, illustrating shyness, to the chickens that gathered in the center of the arena, demonstrating extraverted behavior and bravery. The researchers were able to distinguish the anxious birds from the brave ones and, as a result, were able to explore anxiety in the genome.

The researchers were able to pinpoint 10 candidate genes in the hypothalamus, a region in the brain that helps regulate anxiety. These same genes were found in mice and, therefore, researchers believe that these genes could also be found in humans. The only loophole is that it is hard to test anxiety levels in humans with concrete experiments like the one with the chickens. Most likely, humans would not react well to being shoved into a highly lit arena and, therefore, the data from the chicken study would have to be extrapolated to humans because humans and chickens do share many similar genes.

A new link established

The genes responsible for chicken anxiety were closely linked to mental illnesses such as anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. In fact, three of these genes found in chicken anxiety were closely linked to these mental illnesses in humans. Over half of the people with bipolar disorder have some sort of anxiety disorder as well, but the link between schizophrenia and anxiety is new. Although a lot of research is performed on schizophrenia, no cure exists yet, and linking different genetic components can hopefully help scientists become closer to finding a cure for this debilitating disease.

“Perhaps some mental disorders have an evolutionary basis in the same physical fear mechanisms that cause animals like chickens to freak out in the presence of predators. Next, researchers hope to take the work a step further, establishing more concrete links between the genes and using the work to paint a better picture of how genes affect behavior in all three animals,” according to the article.

The Sovereign Health Group is a leading behavioral health treatment provider with locations across the United States. Our mental health program treats people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder and other mental illnesses. We also treat substance abuse and co-occurring conditions. For more information on our treatment program, please call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Kristen Fuller, M.D., is a senior staff writer at the Sovereign Health Group and enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the cutting-edge world of medicine. She is a physician and author, who also teaches, practices medicine in the urgent care setting and contributes to medicine board education. She is also an outdoor and dog enthusiast. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at