A new study suggests that obesity actually is genetic - here's why.
Obesity is one of the biggest problems facing the nation and researchers have struggled for years to determine its causes. According to a press release from the National Institute of Health, a variation of a gene for brain-derived neurotropic factor, known as BDNF, has been found to lead to lower levels of the protein by the same name, which controls appetite. This, researchers believe, may contribute to the ongoing obesity epidemic in both children and adults.
A recent study carried out by scientists at the National Institute of Health suggests that by boosting the levels of BDNF proteins in the body, people could begin to see some serious benefits as far as obesity goes. The genetic variation, the study found was more common in African American and Hispanic patients than it was in non-Hispanic Caucasians.
The study, published in the journal Cell Reports, recognizes that obesity is a serious problem in the United States. It reported that obesity contributes to health problems like cardiovascular disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, placing additional strain on the country’s healthcare systems.
Genetics can make a person more susceptible to becoming obese and could influence how successful certain weight loss strategies can be. Cells are the gatekeepers of energy in the body and the way genes influence these cells can cause them to store more energy than necessary, resulting in weight gain.
The BDNF protein was found to serve several functions in the brain and nervous system. At high levels, the BDNF protein makes a person feel full, letting their brain know that the body need not consume any more food. When levels of this protein are low, however, a person can be driven to continue eating long after their nutritional requirements have been fulfilled. This results in weight being piled on, which can quickly get out of control for many people.
Joan C. Han, an investigator from the NICHD and the University of Tennessee’s Health Center and the lead of the research team that carried out the study, has been studying the BDNF protein for a while. The scientists analyzed brain tissue samples to identify an area of the gene where one small change resulted in a loss of BDNF levels in the hypothalamus, the region of the brain that regulates eating and energy storage.
The genetic difference was not a mutation but a variation that is relatively common throughout the general population. Each person has two alleles of each gene, inherited from either parent. These can vary at any location in a gene, and the researchers referred to the less common allele, the one that leads to reduced BDNF production, as “C.”
The study examined BDNF genes in four groups containing over 31,000 people. They compared the person’s BDNF gene makeup to other factors that influence obesity, like BMI or body fat percentage. They found that African-American adults had a higher frequency of the C allele, which was associated with higher BMI and body fat percentage. The study’s findings suggest that the C allele of the BDNF gene is connected with obesity.
According to Dr. Han, the findings may lead to future studies that reveals more about the C allele, which could potential result in the development of a drug that can treat obesity.