Genetic links to eating disorders identified


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Determined to improve treatments and diagnoses, a group of national researchers say a newly discovered biological link to eating disorders may one day come with a redefinition of anorexia and bulimia. 

A four-yearlong study conducted by 15 researchers from around the country — including one from the UI — found genetic links to these diseases, and officials say it will affect how scientists view eating disorders in the future.

“On one level, it is strong evidence that these are biological, not just behavioral, illnesses, so hopefully, that will bring awareness,” said UI Psychiatry Assistant Professor Michael Lutter.

Lutter said the study, which looked at genes in two families that had an 80-90 percent record of eating disorders, found that two rare DNA mutations could be genetic links to eating disorders.

Their findings — unveiled on Oct. 8 — will help scientists to better understand the complexities and causation of the disease, something Lutter said he hopes will lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective treatments.

“At least in a subset of individuals there is a pathway that in some way leads to an increased chance of having an eating disorder,” he said.

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, up to 24 million people in the United States suffer from a form of these diseases.

According to the association, anorexia nervosa is defined as refusal to maintain a “normal” or “above normal” weight for height and age.

Individuals suffering from anorexia tend to have high morbidity and mortality rates, Lutter said, and a number of current treatments are not as productive as he would like to see.

Overall, he said, 1 to 3 percent of adolescent women are in danger of fostering an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

While identifying that roughly 120 to 140 individuals are being treated for the eating disorders by UI Student Health, he maintained that a true number is hard to determine.

“There are probably more getting private treatment or no treatment at all,” he said.

Qi Wu, a UI assistant professor of pharmacology, hopes the new study will translate into expanded research on food intake, feeding behavior, and body weight control as well.

Having identified neurotransmitter systems in the brain stem that regulate full intake and eating disorders in his own research, Wu said, he hopes to work with Lutter in the future to combine their research because they strongly correlate.

Professor Curt Sigmund, the head of the Pharmacology Department, said that while working with different parts of the brain, the researchers have overlapping and complementary information.

“Both regions of the brain, the cerebral cortex and brain stem, are interconnected and both cooperate in the elaboration of the behaviors we all exhibit,” Sigmund wrote in an email. “From my perspective, understanding the neural pathways and connections in the brain which control feeding and appetite under normal and abnormal conditions may provide insights into the fundamental mechanisms which control food intake, appetite and satiety in obesity.”

In speaking of Wu and Lutter’s recent advancements, one UI official noted that their work would lead to significant and cutting-edge breakthroughs, resulting in further medicinal momentum.

“Perhaps [we] will be able to come up with a better … target to understand feeding behavior,” said Professor E. Dale Abel, the director of the UI Diabetes and Metabolism Center.

Recognizing that the disorders are quickly emerging issues — particularly on college campuses — Wu said he believes additional dedication to the matter remains of importance.

“The campaigns are promising, but we should definitely dedicate more energy and money to this area,” Wu said. “It is an ongoing battle.”

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