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Finding a genetic cause for anorexia nervosa

Posted by admin 6:56 am, 9 April 2015

Recently a survivor of anorexia nervosa and a psychiatrist at the Royal Hobart Hospital, Dr Fiona Wagg, went on ABC Radio to raise awareness about a study that is currently being undertaken by the Anorexia Nervosa Genetics Initiative (AGNI) to find a genetic cause for anorexia nervosa. Anorexia nervosa is a devastating psychiatric illness in which the sufferer becomes preoccupied with controlling their weight and restricts their food intake. They also often engage in other compensatory behaviours such as self-induced vomiting and compulsive exercise. It is one of the most deadly psychiatric illnesses, with up to 20% of chronic sufferers dying of suicide or medical complications.

Many sufferers experience judgement and stigma as those around them may judge them for being “vein” and expect that their behaviour could be easily changed, but this is very far from the truth. The great thing about a study like this one is that if a gene that causes anorexia can be found, the stigma can be removed from the illness and we can focus on finding even more effective treatments and preventative measures. The causes for anorexia are complicated and varied, yet many sufferers report that the restriction of eating gives them a sense of control over their lives and reduces emotional distress about other issues to some extent. Often there is much emotional suffering underneath the disorder.

As a professional who often treats anorexia nervosa, the difficulty is that many sufferers struggle to battle the illness on their own and find motivation for change. This is why early intervention and the involvement of loved ones in treatment is crucial, particularly for younger sufferers.  The Maudsley Model of family-based treatment is very effective for sufferers under the age of 19, but for older sufferers their treatment can be more difficult. The public health system offers few hospital beds for treatment of eating disorders and many sufferers are forced to take out private health cover to obtain the appropriate treatment. It is my hope that the study being conducted by AGNI will help us to find a cause for anorexia nervosa and help guide effective treatment, build awareness and increase the resources available to sufferers of this destructive illness. Please see the AGNI website for more details about the study and how to take part if you are, or have been,  a sufferer of anorexia nervosa.  (https://angi.qimr.edu.au/)


Dr Rani Ellison