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Anorexia Nervosa Health Center

Anorexia and Bulimia: Cracking the Genetic Code

New research suggest a person's genes may point to a propensity for developing an eating disorder.
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Anorexia Genes continued...

"I don't think any of us feel that we're going to find a single gene that will account for anorexia nervosa and bulimia, such as with the gene for Huntington's disease," says Craig Johnson, PhD, director of the Eating Disorders Program at Laureate Psychiatric Clinic and Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and one of the study's co-investigators. "We're convinced that instead there will be a number of genes that, to small effect, line up to create susceptibility."

Many people have theorized that the current obsessive cultural focus on weight and thinness -- and on celebrities and their appearances -- is likely to promote anorexia and bulimia. But that doesn't entirely explain the conundrum of eating disorders, says Johnson.

"The overall prevalence of anorexia and bulimia, combined, is about 4%. But if they're largely caused by societal pressures, there should be a lot more of this. How many newsstand magazines can you pick up and read about someone's weight loss?" he asks. "Why can many girls go on a diet and walk away not dramatically affected, while four out of 100 wind up with psychiatric illnesses? The answer probably lies in neurochemistry and genetics."

The genetic research seems to indicate that some people -- mostly, though not all, female -- may have a latent vulnerability to eating disorders, which might never be "turned on" if they weren't exposed to particular influences, just as a predisposition to alcoholism can remain latent unless the person takes a drink.

"Since in our culture today, dieting behaviors are more intense, it's exposing that latent vulnerability more now than in previous generations," suggests Johnson.

Treating Anorexia as a Genetic Disorder

Ultimately, of course, the investigators hope that this research might suggest new possibilities for treatment.

"The long-term goal is to identify those aspects of brain-related function that influence development, behavior, and personality, and help us refine the search for potentially more effective pharmacotherapies," says Michael Strober, MD, professor of psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is also director of the Eating Disorders Program at the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA.

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