A Gene Mutation Might Help Explain Why Women Are More Likely To Have Eating Disorders

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Past studies have linked several specific genes to eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors, but new research into one specific gene may finally provide valuable insight to eating disorders. In particular, it may help explain why women are statistically more likely to develop an eating disorder than men.

Researchers at the Eating Recovery Center of Dallas investigated the gene histone deacetylase 4 (HDAC4) by placing the gene mutation into mice and found the gene noticeably affected the behaviors of female mice – while seemingly being ineffective in male mice.

“The mutated female mice have several behaviors relevant to eating disorders,” Michael Lutter, psychiatrist at the Eating Recovery Center of Dallas and study author, said in a statement. “In particular, they work less hard to obtain high-calorie food when they are hungry, which is important because failure to increase food intake in response to hunger is a core feature of anorexia nervosa. Also, they have compulsive grooming, which is considered a model of obsessive-compulsive disorder in mice. OCD-like behaviors are very common in patients with anorexia nervosa as well,” he said.

The animal study adds to the evidence suggesting HDAC4 contributes to eating disorders in people.

The researchers found that after placing the genetically mutated mice in a larger group, the females with the gene mutation showed heightened levels of anxiety and irritability. The findings say the mice found social situations to be unrewarding and possibly contributed to disordered eating behaviors in the mice.

The team also identified several genes impacted or controlled by HDAC4. In particular, the study results revealed the gene mutation caused genes linked to the synthesis of a neurotransmitter called glutamate to decrease production.

“This is important because glutamate has previously been implicated in feeding, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and depression,” Lutter explained. “So this one observation could explain a whole array of behavioral deficits.”

“This is the first biological pathway that’s been identified as being associated with the risk of developing an eating disorder,” Huxing Cui, a scientist at University of Iowa, noted. “This work will open new avenues of research to understand the neurobiological basis of eating disorders and identify new opportunities for development of medications to treat eating disorders.”

The findings will need to be verified and tested in human trials, but if it proves to be consistent, it could open new doors to monitoring and treating eating disorders in the future.

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