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The Genetics of Anorexia Nervosa

What is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa (often shortened to “anorexia”) is a mental illness characterized by low body weight, fear of gaining weight, and distorted sense of body image (or body dysmorphia). While eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, we know very little about anorexia’s underlying biology, and there are no reliable medications to treat it.

In the United States, about 30 million people suffer from an eating disorder, an estimated 20 million of whom are women; only 1 in 10 individuals suffering from an eating disorder will seek help. (Source: National Eating Disorders Association) 

Infographic by ChronicleMe. Click to enlarge.

 

What research is the Foundation supporting?

Anorexia is complex. Anorexia is heritable. The root causes of of anorexia lie in biology and genetics, not fashion magazines or societal pressures.

Dr. Cynthia Bulik leads a team of researchers that has contributed to the largest international effort ever undertaken to decode the genetics of anorexia. The Foundation of Hope grant allowed her to gather DNA and phenotypic data from around 300 individuals with a current or past history of anorexia, and contribute these samples to a 20-country effort, the Genetic Consortium for Anorexia Nervosa.

Additionally, the Foundation of Hope grant allowed Dr. Bulik to obtain funding Wellcome Trust Case Control Consortium 3 for genotyping, as well as a substantial grant from the Klarman Family Foundation to collect 8,000 additional samples in the United States, Australia, Denmark, and Sweden.

What does this mean for anorexia treatment?

Eschewing the common belief that anorexia stems from ideals of cultural thinness, Dr. Bulik underscores that anorexia is a complex and heritable eating disorder stemming from identifiable “risk” genes. Dr. Bulik’s team gathered thousands of DNA samples and controls, finding two gene segments that suggested association with anorexia. With subsequent DNA sampling, investigators in the field may come to better understand not only anorexia and other eating disorders, but a host of other psychiatric illnesses.

Dr. Bulik’s $41,000 Foundation of Hope grant in 2010 has skyrocketed in recent years, resulting in $8.1 million of additional funding from the NIMH and the Klarman Family Foundation.

If you have had anorexia nervosa at any time in your life and are interested in participating in Dr. Bulik’s study, please visit www.unceatingdisorders.org/angi, call 919.966.3065, or email angi@unc.edu for more information.

 

Meet the Researcher

 

Among her many titles, Dr. Cynthia M. Bulik, Ph.D., is the Director of Research at the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, and the director of the first NIMH-sponsored postdoctoral training program in eating disorders. A clinical psychologist by training, Dr. Bulik has been conducting research and treating individuals with eating disorders since 1982. She founded and led the 18-country Genetic Consortium for Anorexia Nervosa, and is the lead Principal Investigator of the four-nation Anorexia Nervosa Genetics Initiative (ANGI). The recipient of the first endowed professorship in eating disorders in the United States, she has had continuous federal, international, and foundation funding since 1985.

Dr. Bulik’s groundbreaking studies have earned her a place as a leading researcher in the field of genetics. She has written nearly 500 articles and several books, and appeared in public forums from the Academy of Eating Disorders to Good Morning America.

 

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