How Does Anorexia Nervosa Become Fatal?

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  • Anorexia Nervosa, also known as anorexia, is an eating disorder that affects approximately 9% of the world’s population
  • Researchers at Yale University have identified a specific neuron that causes the eating disorder to become fatal
  • The study also found; a high-fat diet could potentially help patients survive the disorder

Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by restricted food portions, fear of weight gain, and compulsive exercising. Despite losing weight people with this eating disorder continue to fear weight gain and develop an unhealthy relationship with food. This can result in complications such as osteoporosis, heart problems, electrolyte imbalances, kidney problems, and organ damage due to severe malnutrition. 

While Anorexia mostly affects young women, the prevalence seems to be rising among boys and men. It has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, around 10 percent. Likely as a result of complications and an increased risk of suicide among those suffering from anorexia. 

However, researchers at Yale University have discovered a specific neuron that plays an important role in eating disorders becoming deadly. The team reported their findings in a research letter published in the journal Nature Metabolism.

Over the last 25 years, our work has focused on understanding what drives hunger. We wondered if neurons in the brain which are working at a high level when someone is dieting could be participating in some aspect of the disease.

Professor Tamas Horvath, study author

Neuron Causes Anorexia Nervosa to Turn Deadly

The researchers tested their hypothesis on a mice model with features similar to that of anorexia nervosa.

The mice had access to a running wheel, water, and food. However, after a few days, their food was restricted. During food restriction, the mice ran excessively which contributed to weight loss. 

The hypothalamic agouti-related peptide neuron (AgRP) is physiologically active during food restriction. Therefore, researchers investigated the neuron’s activity in mice which were food-restricted and ran excessively.

Researchers found a direct relationship between neuron activity and the possibility of the mice dying.  

If we diminished these neurons in animals who ate little and exercised compulsively, they died

Professor Tamas Horvath, study author

A Fatty Solution

According to Professor Tamas, the neurons help the body utilize fat stores in the absence of eating along with the state of extreme physical activity. Therefore, inhibition of the neurons resulted in an inability to utilize these fat stores and ultimately proving fatal.

Next, the researchers tested the effects of a high-fat diet in these mice. Surprisingly, a high-fat diet in mice with decreased AgRP activity completely prevented their death.

Thus, Professor Tamas believes that a high-fat diet can potentially increase the chances of survival of those suffering from anorexia. The team of researchers are currently working on identifying fats which can work best in people with a fatal eating disorder.

Reference:

Miletta, M.C., Iyilikci, O., Shanabrough, M. et al. AgRP neurons control compulsive exercise and survival in an activity-based anorexia model. Nat Metab (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42255-020-00300-8

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