Australian researchers are recruiting thousands of anorexia nervosa sufferers to try to find the genes behind the disorder.
Anorexia is a clinical eating disorder that affects one in every 100 adolescent girls.
But it is also increasingly being diagnosed in middle-aged women and men.
The Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) will work with scientists from the US and Scandinavia, on the world’s largest study of the genetics of anorexia.
The Institute’s Professor Nick Martin says there is a clear link between genes and the disorder.
“It’s not all genetic, but there’s a strong genetic influence,” he said.
“We now have almost 100 genes that seem to be influencing schizophrenia, (and) heading that way for bipolar, and so we figured it’s time to start trying to do this for anorexia.”
“And our medical research has now reached a stage where we can now actually try to find the particular genes involved and hopefully this will lead us to cures.”
Previous studies suggest genetic link
Recent research on behalf of the National Eating Disorder Collaboration has shown illnesses like anorexia are becoming more prevalent in Australia.
The research estimated about 9 per cent of the population will experience an eating disorder during their lives.
Fewer than 50 per cent of those afflicted by anorexia nervosa make a fully recovery.
The lead investigator on the US component of the study, Professor Cynthia Bulik, believes finding a genetic basis for eating disorders will be a big step in increasing that number.
“Studies have shown fairly unequivocally that genes play a role in anorexia nervosa,” Professor Bulik said.
“Somewhere between 40 and 60 per cent of liability to the disorder is due to genetic factors.
“Most of us, when we get hungry, get very irritable and it’s not a pleasant feeling. People who are vulnerable to anorexia have a different response to starvation, they find that it calms them.
“We think there might be something fundamentally different in their biology that puts them at risk.” Anorexia not just a mental illness
Currently the eating disorder is treated with psychological intervention, but some specialists do not believe it is purely a mental illness.
“I don’t make a distinction between biological and psychological,” Professor Bulik says.
“The bottom line is, our mind is biological too.
“The most important medicine for the treatment of anorexia nervosa is food.
“Psycho-therapy is still critical, (as is) getting the family and partners involved during recovery.
“Right now, we have no medications that are effective in the treatment in anorexia nervosa, and in part that is because we don’t understand the biology.” Middle-aged increase linked to stress
Anorexia was once thought to mainly affect upper-class teenage girls.
But Professor Bulik says that is a myth and there is growing evidence of it developing in middle-aged women and men.
“Anorexia nervosa does not care how old you are,” she said.
“If you really look at the numbers, the most common age group for eating disorders is probably someone in their 30s or 40s.
“The genes are there all along, but the question is when and how do they get triggered.
“The way I like to view this is genes load the gun, and environment pulls the trigger.
“We’re seeing things like divorce, illness, financial problems, even menopause can be a trigger.”
The study has been launched as Brisbane hosts Australia’s first eating disorder conference.
It will be conducted by a group known as the Anorexia Nervosa Genetics Initiative.
The researchers are hoping to recruit 8,000 women around the world who currently have or have had anorexia.
Volunteers will be asked to complete a survey and give a blood sample.
Read more here.
New study links anorexia and genetics
Anorexia and Bulimia: Cracking the Genetic Code