Anorexia is an eating disorder characterized by an obsessive limiting of calories to control weight. Individuals with anorexia not only limit their calorie absorption through restricting food, but also through the use of compulsive exercise habits.
Those who struggle with anorexia may hide the condition for months or years, using a high level of secrecy to keep even close friends or family from detection. By the time help is sought out for treatment, the behaviors may be difficult to overcome. Relapse among patients with anorexia is common.
A new study being conducted in the area of epigenetics, however, may provide new information about the genes involved with eating disorders like anorexia. Little research has been conducted in this area, but Professor Tracy Wade and colleagues at Flinder’s University hope that comparing genes of anorexic women to those of healthy women may lead to new opportunities in treatment options.
The researchers are comparing cheek swabs from 12 women receiving inpatient treatment for anorexia and comparing them with those of healthy women of the same age to determine whether genes are turned on or off while the person experiences a change in their weight.
The field of epigenetics is largely untouched in the area of eating disorders. Professor Wade is conducting only the third eating disorder study that uses epigenetics to attempt to understand what causes the illness. It is a new area for Professor Wade, who uses therapeutic relationships to treat eating disorder patients.
The researchers hope that information gained by the study will provide new opportunities for treating anorexia, including a possibility of developing a medication for the disorder.
Finding an effective treatment medication for anorexia would be a major breakthrough. Of all mental disorders, including schizophrenia and depression, anorexia has the highest mortality rate. In addition to suffering mental symptoms, anorexia patients can experience serious physical problems, such as heart failure.
However, epigenetics may lead to important new information. For instance, one of the two epigenetic studies conducted so far found that grandchildren of those who starved during the Dutch famine during World War II have a higher mortality rate. The grandchildren die earlier and have more cardiovascular problems when compared with other people their age.
The project being conducted by Professor Wade is designed to examine whether genes that are turned off by starvation may be turned on again as the weight is put back on the patient.
The researchers hope that if the gene is being turned off, and then responding when nutrition is introduced, there may be a way to manipulate the gene with medication and get recovery started sooner for the patient.
Professor Wade says that the medication will not be the sole treatment for any anorexia patient, insisting that medication would be a tool to be added to therapy or other types of treatment.