The way we treat anorexia may be changing, thanks to a new study linking the illness to metabolism.
The study, published Monday in the journal Nature Genetics, examined the DNA of almost 17,000 people with anorexia nervosa and 55,000 healthy control subjects.
Researchers identified eight genetic markers that correlate the illness, commonly called anorexia, to some of the same genetic factors that also influence the risk for psychiatric disorders — such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression and anxiety; high physical activity; and metabolic and anthropometric traits, such as a low body mass index (BMI).
“It means that when we think about anorexia nervosa we need to be thinking that it is not only a psychiatric disorder but also a metabolic disorder,” lead researcher Cynthia Bulik told CNN.
Why is that significant? Anorexia is commonly treated as a purely psychiatric disorder — it’s why treatments are primarily focused on behavioral therapy. With this research, more attention would be given to the metabolic components of the illness when providing treatment, which could help improve treatment and save lives.
The research could lead to developing a medication for anorexia
The study is both a breakthrough and a starting point, Bulik said.
Though researchers have now identified the role metabolism plays in anorexia, they still need to delve further into the biology to understand what that role is and how it influences the risk of anorexia. That involves examining even more DNA — they’re aiming for 100,000 samples — and partnering with neuroscientists and pharmacogeneticists to identify the underlying biological pathways and develop treatments that actually target the biology of the illness.
Right now, Bulik said there aren’t any medications that effectively treat anorexia, and she’s not convinced medication alone will suffice. But it could help with recovery and reduce mortality.
The team also wants to expand research on other eating disorders to further understand the genetic landscape of eating disorders as a whole.
In the meantime, Bulik said the team is grateful to all the participants who trusted the team with their information and blood samples.
“This work honors their suffering and their families’ desperation to understand and find effective treatments,” she said.