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Dreading your next trip to the dentist?

Researchers discover genetic basis for dental fear 
Cameron Randall

Psychology researchers at West Virginia University have discovered evidence of a genetic basis for fearing dental treatment.   

Cameron Randall and Daniel McNeil report that dental care-related fear and anxiety is due, in part, to genetic influences inherited from parents. The study is one of the first to suggest that genetics, in addition to environmental factors, can be a basis for patients fearing dental treatment.

The study demonstrates that fear of pain, a problem related to but separate from dental fear, is heritable, too. The authors found that some of the genes that influence fear of pain likely also influence dental fear. This finding provides new information that clarifies how fear of pain may contribute to the development of dental fear.

Randall, a doctoral candidate in WVU’s Department of Psychology, says the study provides a more comprehensive conceptualization of dental care-related fear, an understanding that may improve dental care in the future.

“The most important conclusion of this study is that our genes may predispose us to be more susceptible to developing dental fear, perhaps through pain-related variables,” Randall said.

The study used a novel approach to study dental fear heritability in a large participant sample, with family-based cohort data collected through the NIH-funded Center for Oral Health Research in Appalachia. The study was completed in collaboration with the Anxiety, Psychophysiology and Pain Research Laboratory in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, which McNeil directs.  

Dental care-related fear is relatively common, with significant fears affecting 10 to 20 percent of U.S. adults. At high levels, it can result in delays or complete avoidance of dental treatment, which has consequences for individuals’ oral and overall health. As a result, researchers are aiming to understand the causes and cures of this public health problem.

“This information, along with a well-documented understanding of the important role of prior experiences and environment in causing dental fear, may help us develop new ways to treat dental fear and phobia,” Randall said.

The study will be published in Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology on October 12.

Photo credit: Markus Grossalber