Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia often run in families, but identifying specific genes that increase a person’s risk for these complex disorders has proved difficult.
Now, scientists from the University of Iowa and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center have discovered- by studying the genetics of two families severely affected by eating disorders- two gene mutations, one in each family, that are associated with increased risk of developing eating disorders.
Moreover, the new study shows that the two genes interact in the same signaling pathway in the brain, and that the two mutations produce the same biological effect. The findings suggest that this pathway might represent a new target for understanding and potentially treating eating disorders.
“If you’re considering two randomly discovered genes, the chance that they will interact is small. But, what really sealed the deal for us that the association was real was that the mutations have the same effect,” says Michael Lutter, UI assistant professor of psychiatry and senior author of the study.
Overall, the study, published today in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, suggests that mutations that decrease the activity of a transcription factor — a protein that turns on the expression of other genes – called estrogen-related receptor alpha (ESRRA) increase the risk of eating disorders.