Although we still have a lot to learn about the causes of eating disorders, we do know that genetic factors play a substantial role risk. In regard to anorexia nervosa specifically, individuals who have a family member with anorexia nervosa are up to 11-times more likely to develop an eating disorder themselves. Additionally, 40-60% of the risk of developing an eating disorder is attributable to genetic factors—meaning that genes play a substantial role. But genes do not act alone. Environment also plays a role.
Genetic factors are important in determining who may or may not get an eating disorder, but we don’t yet know precisely which genes are implicated.
Why is identifying the specific genes involved in the development of eating disorders so important? First, we will be one step closer to developing targeted treatment approaches. Because we currently can’t do anything about our genetic code, eating disorder prevention and treatment approaches focus on environmental factors. Environmental factors are environments (e.g., personal experiences) that may increase the risk for developing an eating disorder. Identifying the genes involved with eating disorders may assist in the development of new medications that target the core biology of the illness. From this information we may also be able to predict who will benefit from certain medications as an individual’s genetic makeup affects how he or she will respond to medications. Genetic data could provide us with the information we need to individualize pharmacological treatment approaches by informing us about what kinds of medications and at what dosages are needed to benefit specific individuals.
Secondly, somewhat paradoxically, unlocking the genetic code will tell us more about how environmental risk factors for eating disorders operate. Many individuals in the world are exposed to the cultural thin ideal, but comparatively few people ever develop an eating disorder. Genetic factors may help us identify why some individuals are more vulnerable to environmental triggers. For example, many people go on weight loss diets, but only those with a greater genetic predisposition to anorexia may go on to develop the illness. Similarly, just about everyone overeats at some point in their life, but those with higher genetic risk may be the ones for whom overeating can trigger recurrent binge eating episodes.
Identifying the genes involved in eating disorders can ultimately help us find both the cause and a cure.
Anorexia Nervosa Genetics Initiative (ANGI)
The Anorexia Nervosa Genetics Initiative (ANGI), funded by the Klarman Family Foundation, is the largest genetic study ever conducted on anorexia nervosa, and our goal is to identify the genes involved in anorexia nervosa so that we can understand the biology of the illness and ultimately develop targeted treatment approaches based on genetic information. ANGI represents an international collaboration cross the US, Australia and New Zealand, Denmark and Sweeden to collect blood samples and clinical information from over 13,000 individuals who have ever had anorexia nervosa as well as individuals who have never suffered from an eating disorder. Our goal is to unlock the genetic code of anorexia, but to do so; we need volunteers so that we can reach our ambitious goals.
Some people ask why we require blood samples from so many individuals in order to achieve this goal. The reason is that, based on research on other conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, we expect that there are hundreds of genes that influence risk for anorexia nervosa and that each of them alone only has a small effect. In order to identify all of these small effects and their interactions, we need large sample sizes. Genome-wide studies for some traits have now collected samples from tens and even hundreds of thousands of people!
If you are in the US or Canada and have suffered from anorexia nervosa (at some point in your life), you can find out more and sign up for the Anorexia Nervosa Genetics Initiative (ANGI) study. If you live in Australia, you can sign up here. If you are in New Zealand, follow this link to participate. You can participate from the comfort of your own home and there is no travel necessary. Study surveys are online and, in the United States, we can send a mobile phlebotomist to your home (or location of your choice) to complete the blood draw, at no cost to you, nationwide. For those located in the UK, please join at Charlotte’s Helix.
If you never have had an eating disorder, we need your help too! You can participate as a control (that is, somebody who has never had an eating disorder). Eventually we will compare the genes of people who have had anorexia nervosa to the genes of people who have never had an eating disorder and see what genetic differences there are.
Only with your help can we find both the cause and the cure for anorexia.
About The Author:
Dr. Baker is Associate Research Director for the Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina (UNC). Broadly, her research focuses on the biological and genetic vulnerability for eating disorders and how these factors may change across the lifespan and between the sexes. Dr. Baker is also the onsite UNC coordinator for the Anorexia Nervosa Genetics Initiative (ANGI).
Written – 2015