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Scientists Hot on Trail of Bulimia Genes

Genetic Vulnerabilities May Underlie Eating Disorders
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WebMD Health News

Sept. 20, 2005 -- Scientists may be closer to finding the genes that make a young person vulnerable to eating disorders.

Moreover, new techniques developed in the study may help researchers find genetic linkages for other complex medical conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Cynthia M. Bulik, PhD, director of the eating disorders program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, led the international team of eating-disorder researchers.

"The genetic research has helped us underscore that these are not simply social or cultural disorders -- and they are not simply 'disorders of choice,'" Bulik tells WebMD. "When parents have a difficult time understanding why their daughter or son won't just eat more, it is helpful to provide them with evidence that there is a biological/genetic underpinning for this. We also tell them that genes alone do not cause these disorders."

6 Essential Traits of Eating Disorders

Bulimia is an eating disorder in which a person goes on eating binges, and then purges by self-induced vomiting and/or laxative abuse. Bulimic patients typically maintain normal weight.

Anorexia is an eating disorder in which a person becomes extremely underweight by excessive dieting, excessive exercise, and/or purging.

Bulik and colleagues began by assembling a group of experts in bulimia and anorexia. Based on their clinical experience and knowledge of past research, the experts came up with a list of more than 100 behaviors and personality traits linked to these eating disorders.

"These are traits we see a lot in these folks, even after they recover from their eating disorders," Bulik says. "That is key, because we are looking for predisposing traits. We don't want traits caused by starvation."

They then boiled the list down to six traits that appear to run in families and thus might be influenced by inherited genes. Those traits are:

  • Anxiety
  • Obsessionality -- thoughts that appear over and over again, or an intense preoccupation with symmetry, exactness, and order.
  • Age at first menstruation. Girls who reach puberty earlier than others, Bulik says, become more full figured than their prepubescent peers. To fit in, they may wish to regain their childlike figure.
  • Food-related obsessions
  • Lowest body weight during eating disorder
  • Concern over mistakes

Bulik and colleagues report their latest findings in the American Journal of Medical Genetics.

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