Sadly, people with eating disorders often face a long-term battle. Those with anorexia nervosa, for instance, are often severely underweight and have a high likelihood of dying from malnutrition.
Now, a new study sheds light on why some people have poor outcomes.
An international team of scientists has identified possible genetic variations that could influence a patient’s recovery from an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Researchers believe their findings may augment development of effective interventions for the most treatment-resistant patients with these disorders.
“This study sheds light on important ‘SNPs’ or genetic variations within an individual’s DNA, associated with long-term, chronic eating disorders,” said Walter H. Kaye, M.D.
“These variations suggest genetic predictors for patients who may be particularly susceptible to eating disorders and whose illnesses are most difficult to treat effectively.”
Interestingly, the genetic traits are also linked to individuals with higher anxiety and higher concern over mistakes – traits associated with anorexia and bulimia.
According to the study’s lead author, Cinnamon Bloss, Ph.D., the findings could eventually help pave the way toward a more individualized approach to treating patients with eating disorders.
“Anorexia and bulimia likely stem from many different causes, such as culture, family, life changes and personality traits,” said Bloss.
“But we know biology and genetics are highly relevant in terms of cause and can also play a role in how people respond to treatment. Understanding the genetics behind these conditions is important, because it could eventually help us tailor treatment based on the person’s genetic makeup, with the goal of more personalized and effective treatments.”
In recent studies, researchers including Kaye have theorized that anorexia and bulimia likely share some risk factors, and that patients may be genetically predetermined to possess personality traits and temperaments that make them susceptible to the eating disorders.
“Individuals with anorexia in particular are often resistant to treatment and lack awareness of the medical consequences of their behavior, which can result in chronic, protracted illness and even death,” said Kaye.
“The question for us became, ‘Are there prognostic factors that might help clinicians identify good versus poor outcomes for treatments including medication or psychotherapies?’”
In the study, researchers followed 1,878 women to see if common genes, pathways and biological systems increase the susceptibility to eating disorders. Most were individuals with a lifetime diagnosis of either anorexia or both anorexia and bulimia. Many also exhibited lower body mass index, higher anxiety and higher concern over mistakes than control subjects.
The scientists then identified the top 25 most statistically significant SNPs (single-nucleotide polymorphisms), after evaluating a total of 5,151 SNPs in about 350 genes.
According to Bloss, 10 of the 25 most strongly associated “haplotypes” (combinations of alleles for different genes that are located closely together on the same chromosome and that tend to be inherited together) involved SNPs in GABA genes.
The study confirms the hypothesis that genes may predispose individuals to a chronic course of an eating disorder, Bloss said, adding that additional studies are needed to confirm such associations.
Their findings are reported online in the journal Neuropsychopharmcology.