Is Anorexia Genetic?

FRESNO, Calif.

Could the key to treating eating disorders be in a person's genes? Doctors are now going inside the brain to "see" anorexia and realizing the problem isn't just in their heads.

It only took one mean comment from a classmate…

"A girl called me fat," Caroline told Ivanhoe.

That sent Caroline down a dangerous road.

"I stopped eating because I thought I was fat," Caroline said. "So I wanted to make myself skinnier."

At 9-years-old, she was 50 pounds. A healthy girl should weigh twice that. In the hospital -- hooked up to a feeding tube -- doctors told Caroline she was killing herself.

"That kind of made me break out in tears because I didn't really want to die," Caroline explained.

Studies using MRI imaging of anorexic brains are turning the world of eating disorders upside down.

Think all those skinny models in magazines are to blame?

Dr. Walter Kaye says traits that contribute to developing anorexia are genetic.

"Heritability is a much more powerful influence than culture is," Dr. Kaye, professor of psychiatry, at UCSD, said.

What's the difference between an anorexic brain and a healthy one? In one study, participants were given a taste of sugar. In healthy people, the insula and frontal cortex areas of the brain lit up -- signaling "wow that tastes good!"

That pleasure light didn't turn on in the anorexic's brain. Dr. Kaye says they may literally not recognize when they're hungry or when something tastes good.

"Which actually may explain why it's possible for them to lose so much weight," Dr. Kaye added.

Studies helping doctors and patients see and understand a mysterious problem.

"There's really a very powerful biology that's driving this eating behavior," Dr. Kaye, said.

Caroline is now at a healthy weight.

"I had to keep on eating or else I wouldn't get any better," Caroline told Ivanhoe.

Dr. Kaye and others are now using their brain scan studies to develop new treatments that target the biology -- not just the psychology -- of eating disorders. He says he's found anorexics have many of the same personality traits: attention to detail, concern about consequences and a drive to accomplish and succeed.


Walter Kaye, MD
University of California, San Diego
San Diego, CA

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