Anorexia nervosa is a severe and complicated eating disorder that encompasses an array of behavioral abnormalities. Now, researchers have discovered a gene that may be the key to controlling the problem. A team of researchers from the University of Iowa found that by manipulating a food-regulating gene called the estrogen-related receptor alpha (ESRRA), they could control the motivation to eat. The study, published in the journal Cell Reports, may eventually lead the team to discover other parts of the brain responsible for eating disorder behaviors.

"Decreased calorie intake usually motivates animals, including humans, to seek out high-calorie food," the study’s lead researcher Dr. Michael Lutter, a psychiatry professor at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, said in a press release. However, he says by removing the ESRRA activity, they were able to disrupt the motivation to seek out food.

"Clearly social factors, particularly the Western ideal of thinness, contribute the remaining 'non-genetic' risk, and the increasing rate of eating disorders over the past several decades is likely due to social factors, not genetics," Lutter added.

In the study, female mice were more affected by the gene loss than male mice, and were observed compulsively grooming themselves. Both male and female mice experienced impaired social interactions, which showed exactly how intertwined anorexia is with behavior abnormalities in an individual’s genetic makeup.

“One of the concepts that has emerged in the field of psychiatry over the past decade is that signals from the body play an important role in the development of several psychiatric disorders, especially depression, anxiety, and eating disorders (The ‘mind-body connection’),” Lutter told Medical Daily. “There are a lot of efforts to intervene with these body processes to see if the mental symptoms will improve as well and we are hopeful that our approach will help improve the treatment of eating disorders.”

Approximately 50 to 70 percent of eating disorders are inherited, but researchers have had a difficult time identifying the genes that create such a risk, according to the American Psychological Association. Anorexia and bulimia are categorized as psychosocial disorders that the medical research has increasingly found to have roots in family trees. Researchers suspect this accumulating evidential discovery is similar to when they discovered schizophrenia and autism had hereditary links 20 years ago.

Lutter and his research team plan to start testing treatments and searching for other genetic components for anorexia nervosa to see if they could curb behavioral problems associated with eating disorders. Up to 24 million people, regardless of age and gender, suffer from an eating disorder like anorexia in the United States, according to The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. They are also looking into how the gene could potentially treat other eating disorders, such as bulimia nervosa.

Source: Lutter M, Cui H, Lu Y, Khan M, Anderson R, and McDaniel L, et al. Behavioral Disturbances in Estrogen-Related Receptor alpha-Null Mice. Cell Reports. 2015.