Before University of Maryland student Chris Hawes was diagnosed with social anxiety during his junior year of high school, he didn’t understand why he would “shut down” and occasionally experience panic attacks when he went out in public.

“I didn’t really know what it was at the time — I just thought it was shyness,” said Hawes, a sophomore English education major. “Any type of gathering was a problem to me, like sometimes just going to restaurants or grocery stores.”

Recently, researchers at this university discovered a brain circuit that can be responsible for the transmission of extreme anxiety disorders like Hawes’ from parents to children.

The findings, which are the culmination of an 11-year study, explore why “anxious parents are more likely to have children who are anxious themselves,” said Alex Shackman, a psychology professor at this university and a collaborator on the project.

Previously, the underlying causes of the heritability of extreme anxiety were largely a mystery to researchers. The discovery of the circuit, which explains why some anxiety disorders can be genetically inherited, could revolutionize treatment by providing a new target for medicine and therapy, Shackman said.

While neither of Hawes’ parents have anxiety, he said he’s very concerned about how his disorder could affect his children if he were to have kids.

“That’s always been a big thought of mine,” he said. “Sometimes I think, ‘If I do have a child, will they have this problem?'”

[Read more: UMD professors start ADHD counseling group]

Anxiety affects roughly 1 in 5 people, causing “worldwide suffering and disability,” according to the results of the study published in The Journal of Neuroscience in July.

Christina Danko, a licensed clinical psychologist and research professor at this university, said that while there are several different types of anxiety disorders — such as separation anxiety, social anxiety and general anxiety disorder — they all share some common characteristics.

“Overall, anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive worries and obsessive concerns that have a significant impact on the adult or child’s life,” Danko said.

Sometimes, she added, they can be diagnosed at a young age and treated with counseling and medication.

Hawes, for instance, takes medication and saw a counselor for about two years in high school.

“It’s definitely better after the medicine and counseling,” Hawes said. “I can handle anxiety attacks and I’m not worried about going out in public.”

Andrea Chronis-Tuscano, a psychology professor who also conducts research on young children with anxiety, said counselors and psychologists want to prevent anxiety disorders from holding people back.

“We’re not trying to change people’s personality, but we’re trying to help kids do the things they want to do,” she said. “Sometimes kids with anxiety might change their major, because they don’t want to give talks.”

The research was mainly funded by grants from the National Institutes of Mental Health and included the collaboration of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of California, Davis and UMD, Shackman said.

[Read more: UMD’s Counseling Center has added five new positions]

To conduct the study, rhesus monkeys were placed in comfortable testing cages and an experimenter would enter the room, come fairly close to the cage and “very intentionally not make eye contact” with the monkeys, Shackman said. This “threatening” action would either induce anxiety or apathy in the monkeys.

The researchers conducted these procedures to quantify and study the anxiety levels of the monkeys and their mothers. Researchers also performed Functional MRI testing to see which regions of the brain are connected during anxiety-heightened scenarios and search for links between mothers and babies, Shackman said.

Danko said the results of the study give her hope for the future of treating and conquering anxiety disorders.

“I think there’s been a lot of great research being done looking at the biological substrates of how it is passed on,” she said. “Knowing more about the relationship helps move the field forward.”