Eating disorders, which often arise before adulthood, have been increasing in recent years and about a quarter of young people report having symptoms, according to MQ: Transforming Mental Health, a research charity.
By pinpointing often-ignored factors, researchers from University College London, funded through the MQ Rosetrees Fellowship, aim to help identify disorders at an early stage, prevent them from developing and inform new treatments, such as drugs that target appetite.
Previous studies have focused on psychological risk factors, such as body image and self-esteem, but the UCL research team, led by Dr Clare Llewellyn, is taking an alternative approach.
She said: “In the field, what’s been talked about more is the social things, the extent to which the parent talks to the child about the child’s weight and their own weight and whether their parents have eating disorders. What we don’t know is the child’s own traits and predispositions.”
The study aims to build on research, some of it conducted by Llewellyn, which examined the influence of genetics and childhood eating patterns on obesity. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness and such conditions cost the UK about £15bn a year.
Llewellyn said since the completion of the human genome project in 2003, researchers have been trying to identify genetic code associated with variation in weight. They have been successful in narrowing down the genes in parts of the brain that control appetite, which is determined by satiety and responsiveness to food cues – taste, smell and sight.
“Most people don’t realise the extent to which your appetite is controlled by the brain, rather than something we just learn,” Llewellyn said.
She is working on the hypothesis that some of the code that underpins genetic susceptibility to disordered eating is similar to that already identified as affecting body mass index. If that is the case, it could pave the way for early detection through screening programmes.
The second strand of the study will explore how parents’ feeding practices affect children’s eating habits during adolescence. Llewellyn said researchers were not seeking to blame parents for potentially harmful strategies but were instead trying to identify those which were optimal.
“We are trying to look for parental feeding practices that predict a really healthy relationship with food – plus genetic susceptibility and how that affects appetite – to try to identify the best strategies parents can use to help their child develop a healthy relationship with food,” she said.
Researchers will analyse data from twins whose mental health, genetic and parental factors have been tracked from birth through to their teenage years.
Sophie Dix, the director of research at MQ, said: “[The] project takes forward vital new research into understanding and preventing eating disorders. There is a real potential to see tangible results that could change the lives of the 725,000 people who are affected by eating disorders each year in the UK.
“There is a huge dearth in funding into mental health research, especially in eating disorders. This leaves too many people without the information and support they need. The potential of this project is significant, from informing parents on healthy eating practices through to setting the stage for the development of new treatments.”