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Psychol Med. 2014 Dec;44(16):3469-80. doi: 10.1017/S0033291714000828. Epub 2014 Apr 16.

Cognitive content specificity in anxiety and depressive disorder symptoms: a twin study of cross-sectional associations with anxiety sensitivity dimensions across development.

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Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, Institute of Psychiatry,King's College London,UK.
Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths,University of London,UK.



The classification of anxiety and depressive disorders has long been debated and has important clinical implications. The present study combined a genetically sensitive design and multiple time points to investigate cognitive content specificity in anxiety and depressive disorder symptoms across anxiety sensitivity dimensions, a cognitive distortion implicated in both disorders.


Phenotypic and genetic correlations between anxiety sensitivity dimensions, anxiety and depressive disorder symptoms were examined at five waves of data collection within childhood, adolescence and early adulthood in two representative twin studies (n pairs = 300 and 1372).


The physical concerns dimension of anxiety sensitivity (fear of bodily symptoms) was significantly associated with anxiety but not depression at all waves. Genetic influences on physical concerns overlapped substantially more with anxiety than depression. Conversely, mental concerns (worry regarding cognitive control) were phenotypically more strongly associated with depression than anxiety. Social concerns (fear of publicly observable symptoms of anxiety) were associated with both anxiety and depression in adolescence. Genetic influences on mental and social concerns were shared to a similar extent with both anxiety and depression.


Phenotypic patterns of cognitive specificity and broader genetic associations between anxiety sensitivity dimensions, anxiety and depressive disorder symptoms were similar at all waves. Both disorder-specific and shared cognitive concerns were identified, suggesting it is appropriate to classify anxiety and depression as distinct but related disorders and confirming the clinical perspective that cognitive therapy is most likely to benefit by targeting cognitive concerns relating specifically to the individual's presenting symptoms across development.

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