Rare genetic mutations make people susceptible to eating disorders

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Researchers are reportedly one step closer to understanding the link between eating disorders and genetics, according to a new study published in the journal PLoS One. The findings indicate that specific clusters of gene mutations make a person significantly more susceptible to developing an eating disorder.

The effect of these genetic mutations is so strong the study authors say that the risk of developing an eating disorder is 50 to 80 percent based on genetics.

For the study, University of Iowa psychiatry Assistant Professor Jacob Michaelson worked with students in the Carver College of Medicine and researchers from the Eating Recovery Center in Dallas to analyze the human genetic code in a hunt for the genes they believed are opening the door for eating disorders.

“We decided to do the research because the risk of developing an eating disorder is largely inherited, but the genes that are affected are unknown,” Michael Lutter, a former UI psychiatry assistant professor and current employee at the Eating Recovery Center, said in an email to The Daily Iowan.

The group started by sequencing genetic data from 93 people diagnosed with eating disorders. These included people with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. Using this data, they identified previously unnoticed mutations which are extremely rare.

After that, this data was compared to information from ExAC, a large data set of exomes from more than 60,000 people and removed data from those with any other type of psychiatric diagnosis. By comparing these, the team pinpointed 430 genes, clustered into two groups, that are most likely to be damaged in people with eating disorders.

These findings add to the growing pile of evidence showing that the development of eating disorders is closely tied to a balance of genetics and environments. While genetics are not guaranteed to cause someone to develop anorexia or bulimia, they can make a person much more likely to develop one when placed in a dangerous environment.

“What I love about this study is that it supports that eating disorders come from both nature and nurture,” Kelly Clougher, assistant director of outreach at the University of Iowa University Counseling Service. “There’s a biological predisposition to these issues, but environments can trigger these, too.”

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