Endophenotypes and Biomarkers in Eating Disorders: Genetic Underpinnings, Personality Traits, Vulnerabilities – Part 1

There have been some interesting discussions on the F.E.A.S.T. Facebook group over the past month regarding the role of genetics, personality traits, environmental factors and their role (or lack thereof) in the development of eating disorders and their prognosis. A parent group may seem like an unlikely forum for several hundred-odd comment threads on etiology; however, what we (caregivers, patients or clinicians) believe to underlie these disorders naturally informs our attitudes, decisions and choices with regards to treatment and our relationship to the disorders themselves:

Is this something they will have to manage their entire life?
Does anyone ever fully recover?
I had bulimia as a young adult and now my son has an eating disorder, too – did I pass on “bad genes”, bad habits, or is it a coincidence?
Is her rigidity and anxiety merely a side affect of starvation, or should we treat those as
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Genetics: Friend or Foe in Ending Eating Disorder Stigma?

Refrigerator mothers or the idealization of thin models? Toxic families or toxins in our diets? Oh, if only determining the cause (because it has to be just one, right?) of eating disorders was that simple. All behaviour has a biological basis, a neurobiological correlate. The way our brains function—and the resulting behaviours — is due to complex interactions between our genome, epigenome, and the environment. Eating disorders do not have a single cause; we cannot put the blame solely on families, or thin models, vanity or genetics.

As a science grad student, I am interested in how non-scientists interpret scientific findings on mental disorders, particularly eating disorders. With respect to eating disorders, I am interested in how patients’ understanding of the science shapes the way they view themselves and their eating disorders, as well as how it shapes their treatment and recovery.

In a recent paper, Michele Easter wanted to find out … Continue reading →

Symptoms in Anorexia: Cause or Consequence?

In 2009, Dr. Walter Kaye and colleagues published an article in the prestigious journal, Nature Neuroscience Reviews, titled “New insights into symptoms and neurocircuit function of anorexia nervosa”. [By anorexia nervosa, Kaye et al. limited themselves to restricting-type anorexics (AN-R), so some but not all findings may extend to bingeing-purging anorexics and bulimics] This review, which is lengthy and will take me a few posts to cover thoroughly, focuses on the “findings from pharmacological, behavioural and neuroimaging studies that contribute to the understanding of appetite regulation, reward, neurotransmitters and neurocircuits that are associated with AN.”

A striking feature of anorexia nervosa is the incredibly uniformity of traits and symptoms that patients experience, as well as the narrow range of onset. While the course of the illness varies from person to person, during the AN-R state, individuals exhibit very stereotypic presentation (and that, of course, may be due to malnutrition … Continue reading →

The Genetics of Anorexia Nervosa

Is it the culture of thinness, obsession with dieting or just bad mothering? When it comes to determining the causes of anorexia nervosa, the answer appears to be none of the above. Increasingly, the evidence is pointing to genetics playing an important role in predisposing individuals to anorexia nervosa. Among clinicians and researchers, the notion that genetic factors are important in the development of anorexia nervosa seems uncontested. In this short review, Dr. Cynthia Bulik and colleagues summarize some of the findings in the genetics of anorexia nervosa.

Currently (DSM-IV), to be diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, a patient must show:

  • An inability to maintain normal weight (<85% of what is expected)
  • Intense fear of weight gain and/or becoming fat, though underweight
  • Obsession with body weight and shape, giving it undue importance in evaluating self-esteem/self-worth
  • Amenorrhea (missing 3 or more consecutive periods)
  • There are two AN-subtypes: restricting
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