Anorexia determined by genes

A new study finds more than half the risk for developing anorexia is genetic.


Sarah Goldstein
March 16, 2006 3:50AM (UTC)

Contrary to the prevailing idea that we can "get" anorexia from culture we live in, researchers studying the eating disorder in twins have found that more than half the risk for developing the disease is genetic. This new finding expands upon a Newsweek article, which Broadsheet covered here and here, that cited recent medical theories equating anorexia to afflictions like alcoholism and depression -- diseases "that may be set off by environmental factors such as stress or trauma, but have their roots in a complex combination of genes and brain chemistry."

The new study was done by researchers at University of North Carolina and Sweden's Karolinkska Institute, and according to the Associated Press, it "looked at a Swedish registry of 31,406 twins -- both identical and fraternal ... Anorexia was more prevalent between identicals, and statistical analysis led to the scientists' conclusion that 56 percent of the liability for developing anorexia is due to genetics, with environmental factors determining the rest."

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Cynthia Bulik, lead author of the study, who is a psychiatrist at the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said "we need to stop viewing [anorexia] as a choice The patients feel guilty, the providers tell them things like they should just eat, parents are blamed, the insurance companies won't fund treatment because they think it's a choice. It's held us back for decades."

The notion that anorexia is often a latent affliction is comforting to both parents and patients facing stigma, as well as deeply troubling, since it suggests that suffering children are somewhat helpless in the face of the disease. But more knowledge of anorexia nervosa's origins raises the possibility of new treatment. Currently, 10 percent of anorexics die from the affliction, and most struggle with it for the remainder of their lives, while few are ever fully cured. As Walter Kaye, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh, said, "This is a disorder where we haven't seen great treatments At least some of us have thought there's a very powerful biology at work here The next step, of course, will be to determine what the biology is, what genes are involved and what difference they make as far as how the brain works."

As developments in psychopharmacology created drugs for the treatment of depression, will there one day be a pill for curing anorexia? And what about the 44 percent of those whose anorexia is psychologically or environmentally induced?

Anorexia is still a rarity -- impacting roughly 1 percent of females and fewer than 1 percent of men -- but millions of others struggle with eating disorders and body neurosis. Realistically, eating disorders will require a range of treatments, with the full knowledge that they cannot be linked to a single gene or a single environmental trigger.


Sarah Goldstein

Sarah Goldstein is an editorial fellow at Salon.

MORE FROM Sarah Goldstein


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