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Scientists Hot on Trail of Bulimia Genes

Genetic Vulnerabilities May Underlie Eating Disorders

Closing In on Bulimia Genes continued...

Specific gene regions were linked to eating-disorder traits. These "signal peaks" were more pronounced for people with bulimia than for people with anorexia.

In a combined analysis, the anorexia signals dimmed the bulimia signals. This, the researchers suggest, probably means that anorexia and bulimia have different underlying genetic influences.

With these signals in hand, Bulik says, researchers now know where to look for bulimia genes.

"The human genome is a big place -- some 30,000 genes," Bulik says. "We can now say, if you want the most bang for your buck, look here. So that is the next step. We will look at all the genes under those peaks, see what we know about what those genes do, and try to figure out if they play a role in anorexia or bulimia."

Genes Are Not Destiny

The Bulik study is important work, says eating-disorder expert Richard Kreipe, MD, chief of adolescent medicine at Children's Hospital at Strong, University of Rochester, N.Y.

"We are going to be able to understand from [these] studies that there are certain traits individuals have that are probably linked to multiple genes coming together in different ways," Kreipe tells WebMD. "These genetic combinations may predispose a person to respond to environmental or developmental or other situations with the behaviors associated with eating disorders."

But Kreipe also warns that genetic influences are not destiny.

"Parents don't give children eating disorders by giving them their genes," Kreipe says. "If you have these genes, you are not doomed. The genes don't cause anorexia or bulimia. They may be associated with development and maintenance of eating disorders. Because of the behaviors people do reduce the negative consequences of these traits."

For example, people with a genetic predisposition for anxiety and bulimia may find that binge eating lessens their anxiety. That, Kreipe says, is a powerful motivation to binge eat. But it doesn't mean that there's nothing a person can do about it.

"The data are very clear that treatment can help," he says. "People with eating disorders can get better. They may still harbor these traits, but the traits don't need to be totally controlling the individual."

Bulik and colleagues are looking for more families with two or more members affected by eating disorders. If you’re interested in particpating, call their toll-free number, 1-888-895-3886 for more information.

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