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Dying To Be Thin (video)
January 02, 2003

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Interviewee: Dr. Walter Kaye, University of Pittsburgh.

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Produced by Orrin Schonfeld and Lisa Chemery

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Harvard Eating Disorders Center

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa

National Eating Disorders Association

Many Americans have made New Year's resolutions to eat less, exercise more and lose weight. But people with anorexia nervosa do these things to such an extreme that they endanger their health or even their lives.

As this ScienCentral News video reports, doctors believe there may be a genetic reason why.

The Thin I’m In

Between five and ten million people in the United States have eating disorders, the deadliest of all psychiatric illnesses. Many of those people suffer from anorexia. They pursue thinness though diet and exercise to the point that they drop to below eighty-five percent of their ideal body weight.

This can lead to health problems like osteoporosis, heart attacks, arthritis and sometimes death.

Another problem, according to Dr. Walter Kaye of the University of Pittsburgh’s Medical Center, a leading researcher on anorexia, is what happens to the brain of people who starve themselves. “The brain actually shrinks,” he says. “A number of chemicals [in the brain] become abnormally high or abnormally low.”

This, believes Kaye, may cause people with anorexia to become more anxious, depressed and obsessive. This is especially dangerous for them because they already tend to be perfectionists and suffer from anxiety.

Starvation, says Kaye, may be a way for them to reduce those uncomfortable feelings, creating a vicious cycle.

Genetics researchers now suspect that, like obesity, anorexia may be inherited. Scientists are interested in which of the 31-thousand genes in the human genome are responsible. It’s a daunting challenge, admits Kaye, but researchers have already found four regions of the genome where they believe at least some of those genes reside. Now they’re training their sights on the specific genes that may play a role in the development of anorexia.

A study funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Mental Health is looking at family members who share the disease. The goal is to find the genes they share. "We try and look at two or more family members that have anorexia and see which regions of the genome they have in common," says Kaye, who’s the lead researcher of the study. But, he points out, it's not just about genetics. "Part of it is the culture and the environment that we grow up with."

There is currently no medical treatment for anorexia. Most of those who recover, says Kaye, simply realize that they can give it up or they don’t need it anymore. But for the others, scientists are hopeful the four-year study will help them find one.
For more information or to participate in the study go to

by Orrin Schonfeld

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