While the global pandemic has ended, its aftershocks are still being felt today – and one of them has been the rise of generalized and chronic anxiety amongst Americans of all age groups, with more than 40 million adults experiencing symptoms every year. What’s more, medication for anxiety can be costly in the US without insurance, and for many, the price paid for these and the results they have given is simply not enough. Increased anxiety results in the brain working harder, which also means increased rates of other illnesses like early-onset dementia or even Alzheimer’s.  

However, not all hope is lost as the rise of new genomic technologies may be the key to alleviating the ongoing mental health crisis. CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing therapy targets hereditary diseases such as Huntington’s, to non-hereditary diseases such as cancer. Recent research has shown that CRISPR/Cas9 can also potentially relieve and even resolve mental health disorders such as chronic anxiety. Recent research has shown that CRISPR/Cas9 can also potentially relieve and even resolve mental health disorders such as chronic anxiety. As the technology continues to grow day by day, it will also become increasingly more visible across different counselling jobs, which may completely revolutionize the field of mental health.

Not just non-invasive, but also effective 

While previous experiments on mice have all shown that CRISPR/Cas9 technology has a viable potential for the treatment of anxiety, recent research by Boise State University provides even further confirmation of its transformative future. 

Boise State University conducted its research by inserting an adeno-associated serotype 9 virus, also known as AAV9, as a vector for CRISPR/Cas9 into the nostrils of mice. This is also known as non-invasive intranasal delivery. After approximately five weeks, 75 mice were used as a sample for comparative assessment. Researchers found that mice treated with CRISPR/Cas9 had a significant reduction of 5HT-2A, which is a serotonin receptor known to induce anxiety, and a modification of the HTR2A receptor gene, also known for playing a role in the activation and modulation of these receptors. In other words, the group of mice that were administered CRISPR/Cas9 generally exhibited far fewer symptoms of anxiety and anxiety-like behaviour. 

Behaviour was assessed by placing the mice under a light-dark behavioural test and a marble-burying test. In the first test, the mice were given the choice of exploring an illuminated room and a non-illuminated room. Anxious mice generally tended to spend far more time in the non-illuminated room than those not anxious. For the second test,  marbles were placed on a grid in sawdust. The mice were to explore the cage for a set period. Anxious mice generally buried far more marbles than those not anxious. 

The system of intranasal delivery ensured that CRISPR/Cas9 would directly target the HTR2A receptor gene by bypassing the blood-brain barrier, forming its non-invasive basis. It also means that a simple nasal administration of CRISPR/Cas9 can allow genome editing and a complete knock-out of these receptors within the central nervous system, without any additional treatment. 

Harnessing the opportunity and avoiding the undesirable

The effectiveness of intranasal administration of CRISPR/Cas9 for modifying complex behavioural traits and disorders like anxiety offers itself as a transformative technological breakthrough for the future of mental health therapy. While current research has only been conducted on mice, the prospects of future clinical trials on humans still look promising. 

Conventional pharmaceutical drugs to treat anxiety such as antidepressants and painkillers do not possess the same precision that CRISPR/Cas9 technology does. Many antidepressants and painkiller drugs are unable to travel beyond the blood-brain barrier, which significantly reduces their targeted effectiveness. Another factor is the build-up of resistance/tolerance to these drugs due to prolonged dependency. Both of these can be confirmed by the fact that nearly a third of Americans who use antidepressants do not find any relief

As such, CRISPR/Cas9 can not only directly target the root of these anxiety-inducing genetic receptors, but can potentially be a powerful solution for those who have built up resistance/tolerance to anti-anxiety medication. The research shows that using this new mode of therapy can potentially allow those with chronic anxiety to, at the very least, live with a decreased and tolerable level of anxiety that does not disturb their daily activities. 

At the same time, however, while aerosol gene editing is much to be excited about, it also does contain legitimate concerns. Whenever CRISPR genetic engineering technology is being dealt with, maintaining ethical and safety standards must always be our principal priority. For disorders as complex and environmentally dependent as anxiety, CRISPR/Cas9 is posed with significant challenges. Future potential use of CRISPR/Cas9 is not without risk. Intranasal administration of CRISPR/Cas9 means that there is, essentially, an editing of the human brain through mere inhalation. While CRISPR/Cas9 therapy may be effective for anxiety developed through things such as substance abuse, it may not be so for others. 

There is also the potential for abuse, which leads to it being entangled with highly contentious practices such as eugenics. Mental conditions outside of anxiety such as autism are not known to be hereditary or caused by genetic mutation, as there is no identifiable ‘autism gene’. Yet with the rise of CRISPR technologies, there is always a likelihood of galvanizing some to view conditions such as autism as being somehow ‘curable’, ‘treatable’, or ‘fixable’ by genetic modification, which would only lead to severely undesirable consequences. It is of utmost importance that controversies such as the He Jiankui incident are not repeated and that ethical standards remain a top priority as CRISPR/Cas9 gradually enters the field of mental health therapy. 

Nevertheless, CRISPR/Cas9 as a therapeutical treatment for conditions such as anxiety is still in its trial period. The recent research by Boise State University confirms the effectiveness of this novel technology and has laid the foundation for it to become a viable, and even revolutionizing, tool for the future of mental health counselling and therapy. 


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