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Could a Gene Help Make You Obese?

Certain DNA might keep people hungry, study suggests

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Dennis Thompson

HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, July 15 (HealthDay News) -- Researchers have discovered a potential genetic explanation for why some people overeat and run a greater risk for obesity.

People who carry two copies of a variant form of the "FTO" gene are more likely to feel hungry soon after eating a meal, because they carry higher levels of the hunger-producing hormone ghrelin in their bloodstream, an international team of scientists found.

What's more, brain scans revealed this double FTO gene variant changes the way in which the brain reacts to food and ghrelin. People with the double variant displayed different neural responses in the brain region known to regulate appetite and the pleasure/reward center that normally responds to alcohol and recreational drug use.

About one in every six people carries two copies of this FTO gene variant. These folks are 70 percent more likely to become obese than people who carry other versions of FTO gene, according to background information in the study published July 15 in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

"We've known for a while that variations in the FTO gene are strongly linked with obesity, but until now we didn't know why," said lead author Dr. Rachel Batterham. "What this study shows us is that individuals with two copies of the obesity-risk FTO variant are biologically programmed to eat more."

Evolution may be responsible for the existence of this double variant in so many people.

"For the majority of the time that humans have existed food has been scarce. Having this genetic variant would have conferred a survival advantage," said Batterham, head of obesity and bariatric services and director of Center for Obesity Research at University College London Hospitals.

The researchers first asked a group of 20 men -- 10 with the double variant, and 10 with a version of the FTO gene linked to lower obesity risk -- to rate their hunger before and after a meal. Blood samples were taken to test their levels of ghrelin, a hormone secreted by the stomach that stimulates appetite.

Ghrelin levels normally increase before meals and fall afterward, but researchers found the men with the double FTO variant had much higher ghrelin levels after a meal and felt hungrier after eating than men who had the variation that carries lower obesity risk.

In the next step, the research team used functional MRI to measure how the brain responds to food images and ghrelin levels before and after a meal, using a different group of 24 men.

MRI scans revealed altered brain activity in the double-variant men, both in the appetite-controlling hypothalamus and the brain's "reward" regions, which are known to respond to alcohol and recreational drugs. The altered activity occurred in response to food images and to the ghrelin in their bloodstream.

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