Netting the NET: An anorexia nervosa gene is caught!

August 05, 2002

Anorexia nervosa mainly afflicts young women. The sufferers become obsessed with the importance of losing weight to the point where they become skeletal. A fatal outcome is all too common in this serious disorder. To decrease their weight, sufferers either restrict their eating only (restricting anorexia nervosa), or vomit what they eat.

Stress and anxiety are emotions experienced intensely by sufferers with anorexia nervosa. Stress and anxiety involve the norepinephrine neurochemical system. The NET is a protein that plays a role in this system by shipping the chemical called norepinephrine back into neurons. The NET gene provides the instructions to make the NET. An on-off switch (promoter) in the NET gene determines how many NETs are made. Variation in the DNA sequence of the promoter may increase or decrease the number of NETs being produced. Since this may begin disease processes, the researchers studied the DNA sequence of the promoter. They found a big piece of DNA in normal people which had never been observed before. This DNA was found in two different sizes: one long and one short. When sufferers with the restricting type of anorexia nervosa, and their parents were tested, the parents were shown to pass on the long form significantly more often than the short form to their children. This shows that a person who inherits the long form has an increased chance of developing the restricting type of anorexia nervosa.

The study findings, published in the August issue of Molecular Psychiatry, are clear-cut and are set to turn future genetic studies of anorexia nervosa towards the norepinephrine neurochemical system. This should allow greater understanding of the biological mechanisms behind the development of this devastating illness, which has the highest death rate of all psychiatric disorders. Scientists are optimistic that the research will allow earlier identification and treatment of those who are vulnerable to developing anorexia nervosa, and will also encourage the design and use of new treatments to modify the way sufferers feel stress. This research also shows that the blame often placed on the family environment for causing this disorder is unjustified.
ARTICLE: "Anorexia nervosa (restrictive subtype) is associated with a polymorphism in the novel norepinephrine transporter gene promoter polymorphic region"

AUTHORS: RE Urwin, B Bennetts, B Wilcken, B Lampropoulos, P Beumenot, S Clarke, J Russell, S Tanner and KP Nunn

Department of Psychological Medicine, the Children's Hospital at Westmead, Westmead, NSW, Australia; Department of Molecular Genetics, The Children's Hospital at Westmead, NSW, Australia; Department of Biochemical Genetics and Newborn Screening, The Children's Hospital at Westmead, NSW, Australia; Adolescent Medical Unit, Westmead Hospital, Westmead, NSW, Australia; Department of Psychiatry, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Camperdown, NSW, Australia; Department of Psychological Medicine, University of Sydney, Australia; Wesley Private Hospital, Ashfield, NSW, Australia

Citation source: Molecular Psychiatry 2002 Volume 7, number 6, pages 652-657.

For further information on this work, please contact Dr. Ruth E. Urwin, Department of Psychological Medicine, The Children's Hospital at Westmead, Locked Bag 4001, Westmead, NSW 2145, Australia; phone +61-2-9845-2005; FAX: +61-2-9845-2009; e-mail

Molecular Psychiatry is published by the Nature Publishing Group.

Editor: Julio Licinio, M.D.; phone: +1 310 825-7113; FAX: +1 310 206-6715; e-mail:

For a copy of this article and accompanying editorial, please contact Frank Sissingh, editorial assistant, e-mail:


Molecular Psychiatry

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