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Genetics of eating disorders in the genome-wide era

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 February 2021

Hunna J. Watson
Department of Psychiatry, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, USA Division of Paediatrics, School of Medicine, The University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia School of Psychology, Curtin University, Perth, Australia
Alish B. Palmos
Social, Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King's College London, London, UK
Avina Hunjan
Social, Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King's College London, London, UK National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre for Mental Health, South London and Maudsley National Health Service (NHS) Trust, London, UK
Jessica H. Baker
Department of Psychiatry, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, USA
Zeynep Yilmaz
Department of Psychiatry, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, USA National Centre for Register-based Research, Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark Department of Genetics, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, USA
Helena L. Davies
Social, Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King's College London, London, UK
E-mail address:


Enabled by advances in high throughput genomic sequencing and an unprecedented level of global data sharing, molecular genetic research is beginning to unlock the biological basis of eating disorders. This invited review provides an overview of genetic discoveries in eating disorders in the genome-wide era. To date, five genome-wide association studies on eating disorders have been conducted – all on anorexia nervosa (AN). For AN, several risk loci have been detected, and ~11–17% of the heritability has been accounted for by common genetic variants. There is extensive genetic overlap between AN and psychological traits, especially obsessive-compulsive disorder, and intriguingly, with metabolic phenotypes even after adjusting for body mass index (BMI) risk variants. Furthermore, genetic risk variants predisposing to lower BMI may be causal risk factors for AN. Causal genes and biological pathways of eating disorders have yet to be elucidated and will require greater sample sizes and statistical power, and functional follow-up studies. Several studies are underway to recruit individuals with bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder to enable further genome-wide studies. Data collections and research labs focused on the genetics of eating disorders have joined together in a global effort with the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium. Molecular genetics research in the genome-wide era is improving knowledge about the biology behind the established heritability of eating disorders. This has the potential to offer new hope for understanding eating disorder etiology and for overcoming the therapeutic challenges that confront the eating disorder field.

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