Scientists Discover Gene Mutation That Causes Eating Disorders in Mice

By May Wilkerson 05/04/15

Researchers found that removing a receptor in mice caused the same behaviors exhibited in humans with eating disorders.

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Scientists may have located a genetic risk factor for eating disorders in mice that could help them understand the problem in humans.

In a new study, researchers bred mice with a genetic mutation associated with human eating disorders. They found that the mice exhibited behaviors commonly associated with disordered eating, like obsessive compulsivity, difficulties socializing, and an aversion to high-fat foods. Scientists believe the findings could lead to new treatments for eating disorders, which affect an estimated 24 million people in the U.S.

"You can't go testing this kind of gene expression in a human," said lead author Michael Lutter, a neuorscientist at the University of Iowa. "But in mice, you can manipulate the expression of the gene and then look at how it changes their behavior."

Back in 2013, the same researchers began seeking out genes that might contribute to the risk of an eating disorder. Though there are social components at play in disorders like anorexia and bulimia, researchers wanted to understand why some families are at higher risks than others. They discovered various genetic mutations present in two families where more than one member had suffered an eating disorder. One of these genes was the estrogen-related receptor α (ESRRA).

In the latest study, they bred mice that lack the ESRRA gene. When tested for several eating disorder-like behaviors, these mice were less willing to seek out high-fat food when they were hungry, and weighed 15% less than the control mice. Researchers also found that these mice were “twitchier,” more prone to anxiety, less adaptable, and more sensitive to changes of environment. All of these traits are associated with eating disorders in humans.

The mice without ESSRA also exhibited differences in social behavior: compared to the control mice, they were less interested in socializing with mice they’d never met before. And all of the mice with the mutated gene were more submissive and likely to let themselves be “pushed around.”

Lutter stated that "100% of the mice lacking this gene were subordinate ... I've never seen an experiment before that produced a 0% versus 100% result."

Now that they know that a mutated ESSRA gene has a similar impact on mice as on humans, the researchers can begin looking at the mechanism that causes the gene to mutate. They know that this neural pathway is crucial for energy metabolism, especially in the breakdown of glucose, and mutations in the gene may impair the brain’s ability to get and process energy.

Researchers hope to eventually be able to pinpoint and fix the mutation. They will also test some drugs that may alleviate the disordered behaviors in affected mice, with the intention of eventually developing treatment for humans with the mutated gene.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.