The following is excerpted from an online article posted by MedicalXpress.
Genetic and neurobiological factors shape the development of eating disorders much earlier than previously thought, with evidence emerging in children as young as nine years old, Yale-led research reveals. The findings, researchers say, highlight the need for early screening and intervention.
The results were published in Nature Mental Health.
We know that, like many other mental health conditions, the rates of eating disorders increase in adolescence, and that could be related to both changes in how the brain develops during this period as well as genetic factors,” said lead author Margaret Westwater, a laboratory associate and former postdoctoral fellow at Yale School of Medicine.
“But we don’t fully understand the mechanisms by which genetic risk or brain structure can influence your risk for eating disorders, particularly during the critical developmental period of adolescence.”
To better understand what biological factors might be at play when it comes to the development of eating disorders, the research team used data from the National Institutes of Health’s Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development Study, the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States. They assessed genetic risk, brain structure, and eating disorder symptoms in more than 4,900 adolescents aged 9 to 11.
They found that genetic risk for high body mass index (BMI) was associated with eating disorder symptoms but not symptoms of anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“That was a little surprising because there’s evidence in adults that genetic risk for high BMI is associated with depression, but that’s not what we found in this younger group,” said Westwater.
“Patients with eating disorders struggle with intrusive thoughts about body image or food,” Westwater said. “So it might be that some underlying difference in the structure of these brain networks is contributing to those symptoms.”
One of the big takeaways from the findings, she added, is that biological factors are shaping eating disorder development at a very early age.
“While we’ve recognized for a long time that eating disorders emerge during adolescence, this is one of the first pieces of evidence to suggest that there are genetic and neurobiological mechanisms modulating someone’s risk for these conditions by the age of 10, which is much earlier than most people associate with eating disorders,” said Westwater. “It underscores the need for screening in schools and primary care settings as well as early intervention to save folks from years of suffering.”