Seeing Double On Eating Disorders
First Published: Investigator - July 2008
Updated: July 2011
Flinders researchers are investigating whether genes may play a role in adolescents developing eating disorders.
The three-year project is part of a larger six-year National Health and Research Council assessment of girls from the Australian Twin Register, and seeks to determine how specific psychosocial, biological and genetic factors work together to cause eating disorders in girls.
Research to date has revealed that nearly one in nine adolescents report a high level of importance of shape and weight, ie. the degree to which shape and weight influence the way they feel about and judge themselves as a person.
The frequency of disordered eating behaviours is significantly higher in this group; with girls almost 11 times more likely to go on to have disordered eating behaviours.
‘When a person has an eating disorder they think they’re only worthwhile if they can control their eating and weight,’ lead researcher Associate Professor Tracey Wade, from the School of Psychology, Flinders University said.
‘This compares with other people who gain feelings of being worthwhile through a broad range of areas such as their job, their personal relationships or the sport they play.’
The latest part of the research will look at whether certain genotypes make people more susceptible to developing eating disorders.
Researchers have taken blood samples from 699 twin girls aged between 12 and 15 years, and conducted a series of neuropsychological behaviour tests to examine their level of ‘flexible’ and ‘inflexible’ thinking.
‘We hoped to determine whether inflexible thinking, often referred to as ‘black and white’ thinking, is associated with eating disorders, especially if they come across a complex life event that has no easy answer,’ Associate Professor Wade said. ‘However, from this study we were able to determine a number of factors such as a feeling of ineffectiveness, and sensitivity to punishment, which increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.’
The blood samples are currently being assessed for a gene called 5HTTLPR. This serotonin-transporter gene can increase the risk of depression in people who face adverse life events.
‘This doesn’t mean that if they have the gene they will develop an eating disorder. We are investigating if it just increases their risk of developing an eating disorder when they face certain adverse life events,’ Associate Professor Wade said.
‘If we can determine which kids are more susceptible we can work with them to give them better life and coping skills.’