New Study Claims to Have Uncovered Gene That Sparks Anorexia

By McCarton Ackerman 08/07/15

Researchers found that a mutation of two specific genes drastically increased the likelihood of eating disorders.

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It’s becoming more widely accepted that eating disorders aren’t a lifestyle choice, but rather an addiction that’s similar in many respects to a drug or alcohol problem. A new study out of the University of Iowa is confirming this by suggesting that, just like most addictions, some people are more genetically predisposed to developing eating disorders.

Lead researcher Dr. Michael Lutterat claims that he has uncovered a potential breakthrough by finding the gene responsible for anorexia. His previous work suggested that 50-70% of the risk attached to getting an eating disorder was genetic, but his findings published in the Cell Report suggest that he has found the specific genetic mutation that causes this. The numerous behavioral abnormalities found in mice with the mutation were similar to people who had anorexia.

Dr. Lutterat’s findings are an extension of his previous work on the subject. An October 2013 study out of the University of Iowa found that people with mutations in two different genes, ESRRA and HDAC4, had an 85-90% likelihood of developing an eating disorder. However, he also acknowledged that the current rise in eating disorders was not genetically related.

“We know that the rate of eating disorders has been increasing over the past several decades and this is likely due to social factors, not genetics,” wrote Lutterat. “Clearly social factors, particularly the Western ideal of thinness, contribute to the remaining non-genetic risk.”

Some treatments are even beginning to be formed that address the genetic components of anorexia. A highly experimental brain transplant procedure, which involves inserting a small generator box, similar to a pacemaker, into a person’s ribs before running a wire into their brain, has yielded positive results in a pair of studies conducted in the U.K. and Canada.

The procedure is designed to address malfunctions that some anorexic patients have in the nucleus accumbens, located deep in the middle of the brain. This malfunction means the patients don’t enjoy eating, but the small charge in this deep brain stimulation procedure could stimulate the brain into enjoying eating again. However, even researchers involved in the project admit that it will be, at best, a last resort option for patients who have tried and failed all other options.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.