Evidence is mounting that genetics heavily influence who suffers from eating disorders.
Both anorexia and bulimia are debilitating psychiatric diseases, but scientists have had trouble identifying exactly what causes them. Now, a group of researchers has identified a couple of gene mutations that seem to appear in people who suffer from the disorders.
Michael Lutter, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa and senior author of a new study in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, said during an interview with Fusion that the mutations impact something called a transcription factor, which is a protein that basically allows genes to do their job.
The researchers studied two multi-generational families with a history of eating disorders. Members with an eating disorder were more likely to have the gene mutations. The results might help combat the idea that people who suffer from anorexia or bulimia are someone weak.
Broadly, both mutations inhibit the body’s ability to use nutrients. When a person exercises, genes get “turned on” to help with energy creation. The first mutation decreases the body’s ability to to utilize that energy. The second mutation actually increases the body’s ability to suppress the process of “turning on” genes. That suppression is used when muscles are at rest, for example.
What the scientists found especially interesting, Lutter said, is that the genes interact in the same signaling pathway in the brain. That means studying that specific pathway could help scientists understand and possibly treat eating disorders.
“Most people just think girls want to be skinny and get attention and it goes too far,” Lutter said, “but people who research it have known it’s very biologically based.”
In fact, studies show that the link to inheritability is higher than the link to environmental factors. It’s not uncommon for eating disorders to run in families.
Eating disorders appear in up to three percent of women and a smaller percentage of men. They hit mostly pubescent teen girls, although the age has dropped slightly in recent years.
And they are particularly lethal. One woman out of around every 1,000 will die from anorexia. While around 80 percent of those with an eating disorder recover, 20 percent have chronic, or enduring, disorders, and around 10 percent of people eventually die from them.
There aren’t really any effective drug treatments right now, either, Lutter said. But he and the other researchers are using this new information about the mutations to study whether that might change in the future.
Most current treatment involves renutrition - literally feeding people - and psychotherapy. Sometimes doctors will use medicine to treat peripheral issues like anxiety or anti-depressants to prevent anorexia relapses, but as research on the mutations progresses, scientists may be able to develop effective drugs for cases where traditional treatments don’t work.
Lutter and his colleagues want to study how the mutations impact brain activity.
He hopes, he said, that the study will “get people to start viewing it as a biological disorder.”
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.