A new report in the International Journal of Eating Disorders is the first to show that the longer someone suffers from anorexia nervosa, the more likely they are to show alterations in DNA methylation. These alterations cause changes in gene expression which can affect a range of physiological mechanisms.
The study, entitled “DNA methylation in individuals with Anorexia Nervosa and in matched normal-eater controls: A genome-wide study,” was led by Howard Steiger, of the Douglas Mental Health University Institute Eating Disorders Program (EDP), in Montreal, in collaboration with Linda Booij, a researcher with Sainte-Justine Hospital and an assistant professor at Queen’s University.
According to Steiger, the study shows chronicity of illness in women with anorexia nervosa to be associated with more pronounced alteration of methylation levels in genes implicated in anxiety, social behavior, various brain and nervous system functions, immunity, and the functioning of peripheral organs.
“These findings help clarify the point that eating disorders are not about superficial body image concerns or the result of bad parenting. They represent real biological effects of environmental impacts in affected people, which then get locked in by too much dieting,” Steiger explained.
His findings imply that epigenetic mechanisms may underlie some of the consequences of anorexia nervosa that affect nervous system functioning, psychological status and physical health. If so, an intriguing possibility arises: Does remission of anorexic symptoms coincide with normalization (or resetting) of methylation levels (and could such effects provide clues to more effective treatments)?
“We already know that eating disorders, once established, have a tendency to become more and more entrenched over time. These findings point to physical mechanisms acting upon physiological and nervous system functions throughout the body that may underlie many of the effects of chronicity. All in all, they point to the importance of enabling people to get effective treatments as early in the disorder process as possible,” Steiger concluded.
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