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Sunday, 7 October, 2001, 00:50 GMT 01:50 UK
Anorexia 'has genetic basis'
Gene analysis
Scientists conducted an analysis of anorexia patients' blood
By Marlene Smits

Anorexia nervosa may not entirely be caused by a psychological disorder, research suggests.

Dutch researchers studied the DNA of 145 anorexia patients.

They found that 11% of the patients shared the same genetic mutation.

Proof that anorexia may be due to physical deficiencies opens a door for future treatment with medication

Dr Annemarie van Elburg
The finding could pave the way for the development of drugs to treat the eating disorder.

People with anorexia starve themselves because they believe that they are fat. In 20% of cases the condition is fatal.

It is more common among girls, and usually develops during early adolescence.

Only 30% of anorexia sufferers completely recover from the disease.

Many experts believe the condition is caused by social and psychological pressures on young girls to stay thin.

Rake-thin models

They blame images of rake-thin models and Hollywood actresses for presenting young people with impossible role models.

However, there is evidence to suggest that anorexia may have a genetic component.

The changes of developing the condition are about one in 200.

However, if a family member has the disease, the chances of developing it rise to just one in 30.

And twin studies have shown that when one of the twins suffers from anorexia, there is a 50% chance that the other will contract it as well.

American researchers have been conducting research on a mouse that seemed to have an eating disorder.

The animal was not only obese, but also had a yellow colour.

In 1994 they finally pinpointed the crucial factor as a protein called Agouti.

Agouti is found in the skin, where it is involved in the formation of pigment.

But a similar substance known as AgRP (Agouti Relted Protein) is also present in the brain and stimulates the desire to eat.

Too much AgRP causes gluttony. The Dutch researchers, led by Dr Roger Adan, of the Rudolf Magnus Institute at the University of Utrecht, tested the theory that too little AgRP may be linked to anorexia.

Blood samples taken from the 145 patients revealed that 16 were carrying a mutation of the gene that manufactures AgRP.

Dr Adan said: "With these results we didn't find a cause, but we find a very clear connection."


The researchers worked closely with Dr Annemarie van Elburg, a child psychatrist and head of the eating disorders programme at Utretcht Hospital.

She said: "We think now that when someone with the mutated gene starts to lose weight, it will trigger the gene defect to be active. But this still has to be proven in further studies.

"The next step in the research will be to examine whether the parents of the anorexia patients with deficiency have the same gene mutations as their children."

Dr van Elburg stressed that there was currently no cure for anorexia.

She said: "Often the patients receive psychiatric treatment. And they are encouraged to gain weight in the hope that when the patients' body starts to change, their state of mind will be able to do the same.

"Proof that anorexia may not only be a psychological disease, but also due to physical deficiencies, opens a door for future treatment with medication."

The Eating Disorders Association argues that anorexia, in common with other eating disorders, is a complex condition probably caused by a variety of factors.

The research is published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

See also:

20 Dec 00 | Medical notes
Eating disorders
30 May 00 | Health
Anorexia: A case history
14 Apr 00 | Health
Gene theory on eating disorders
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