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Worldwide UNC Eating Disorder Study May Produce 'Quantum Advance' in Understanding

Courtesy Cynthia Bulik

UNC-Chapel Hill researchers have embarked on what could become the world's largest eating disorders genetic study.

When completed, researchers could have genetic information from as many as 100,000 people who have suffered from an eating disorder. They hope to use that information to identify the genes responsible in predisposing individuals to anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. That information may in turn lead to better treatments and better health outcomes.

"Right now we have no medications that treat this illness. None," said Dr. Cynthia Bulik, the study's principal investigator with a decades-long career in eating disorders. "That's because we don't completely understand the biology. So hopefully, what will happen is we'll uncover more biological pathways, so that we can develop pharmacological agents to actually target those biological pathways."

Bulik's team is looking for 6,000 U.S.-based volunteers to join the worldwide study. Participants must be 18 years or older and have first-hand experience of eating disorders at some point in their life.

While some research has looked at psychiatric origins of eating disorders, not much has been done to assess the role that a person's genetic makeup plays when developing an eating disorder. This study could dramatically improve that understanding.

"This isn't going to be sort of a little iterative advance. I think this is going to be sort of a quantum advance in our understanding."

As with other mental illnesses, the pandemic could play a role in exacerbating the effects of eating disorders. A recent study that Bulik co-authored found that among participants in the study who had self-reported eating disorders, "concerns were high regarding the impact of COVID‐19‐related factors on their eating disorder and on their mental health in general."

"Our new data show that over two-thirds are worried about the impact of the pandemic on their mental health  –  even  more  than  are  worried  about  the  impact  of  COVID-19  on  their  physical  health," said Prof Bulik.

The study, called Eating Disorders Genetics Initiative (EDGI), is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and follows advances made recently through the collaborative Anorexia Nervosa Genetics Initiative (ANGI), which revealed both psychiatric and metabolic origins of anorexia nervosa. Bulik said the study shed light on why people living with the disorder struggle to gain weight, despite their best efforts.

"Our new study, EDGI, offers us a unique opportunity to further investigate the complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors that contribute to eating disorders, in order to improve diagnosis, management and treatment – an endeavor that is evidently even more critical during the current pandemic," Bulik said.

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