Is There a Biological Cause for Eating Disorders?

By Paul Gaita 10/09/14

A new study found that a protein made by intestinal bacteria could be the root cause of eating disorders.

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According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, some 24 million people from all genders and age groups in the United States currently suffer from eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge eating disorder.

While the psychological and genetic causes of these conditions have been well documented, scientists have struggled to find a biological link to the disorders beyond the increased or decreased regulation of food intake. However, a new study by researchers at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research have discovered that a protein produced by intestinal bacteria may be a root cause of these disorders.

The protein, called ClpB, mimics a satiety hormone that helps to inform the body when it is feeling hungry or full. When ClpB is present, the body produces antibodies, which bind to the satiety hormone and create a false sensation of either hunger or fullness.

The researchers initially conducted experiments on the intestinal flora of mice to study their biological response. One test group received E.coli bacteria that produced ClpB, and showed varying levels of antibodies and food intake, while a second group, which received a mutant strain of E.coli that did not produce the protein, displayed no changes in eating habits or antibodies.

Data from 60 human test subjects was then analyzed with a questionnaire that evaluated the severity of their condition, while biological tests confirmed a higher level of antibodies to Clpb and the satiety hormones in their systems. This data appeared to confirm the involvement of the protein in the dysfunctional regulation of their appetites.

Study authors Pierre Déchelotte and Sergueï Fetissov stated that the next steps would be to develop a blood test based on the detection of ClpB. “If we are successful at this, we will be able to establish specific and individualized treatment for eating disorders,” they noted. The long-term goal for the researchers would be to neutralize the protein in order to halt its effect on the satiety hormone without causing harm to the hormone itself.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.