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New Grants Will Further Understanding of the Biology, Genetics and Treatment of Eating Disorders

Science Update

Eating disorders, which include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder, are complex and often life-threatening illnesses. Research has provided some insight into the origins and development of the disorders, but the biological, genetic and behavioral underpinnings of the illnesses are still not fully understood. Three new NIMH-funded projects will help to close the gap in understanding and treating these illnesses.

Pamela Keel Ph.D., of the University of Iowa, will conduct a study designed to better understand purging disorder, which is characterized by frequent purging behavior after normal or small meals among individuals of normal weight. The researchers will examine psychological and physiological factors associated with food intake and feeling full among 50 women with bulimia and 25 women with purging disorder, and compare them to 25 healthy controls.  Discoveries may help identify biological factors that contribute to the development of bulimia and purging behaviors, and therefore lead to more effective medications and other treatments.

Kelly Klump Ph.D., of Michigan State University, will conduct a study to examine the role of ovarian hormones (e.g., estrogen and progesterone) in the genetic basis of bulimia. Using 590 female twins, Klump will identify how natural changes in estrogen and progesterone across the menstrual cycle contribute to bulimic behaviors. Because this study will use twins, researchers will also examine whether genetic factors drive associations between hormones and bulimic behaviors. Findings have the potential to increase understanding of the neurobiological underpinnings of bulimic behavior and its genetic basis.

James Lock Ph.D., of Stanford University and Daniel LeGrange Ph.D., of the University of Chicago, will conduct a two-site trial with 158 adolescents to test a family-based intervention for treating adolescent bulimia. The participants will be randomly assigned to six months of the family-based treatment, an individual-based cognitive behavioral therapy, or a non-specific form of therapy called supportive psychotherapy. The researchers will examine the effectiveness of the interventions in decreasing bingeing and purging episodes. They will also explore how certain moderators, such as symptom severity, may affect treatment response.