Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Obesity and the Brain

Nature Genetics just published a paper that caught my interest (1). Investigators reviewed the studies that have attempted to determine associations between genetic variants and common obesity (as judged by body mass index or BMI). In other words, they looked for "genes" that are suspected to make people fat.

There are a number of gene variants that associate with an increased or decreased risk of obesity. These fall into two categories: rare single-gene mutations that cause dramatic obesity, and common variants that are estimated to have a very small impact on body fatness. The former category cannot account for common obesity because it is far too rare, and the latter probably cannot account for it either because it has too little impact*. Genetics can't explain the fact that there were half as many obese people in the US 40 years ago. Here's a wise quote from the obesity researcher Dr. David L. Katz, quoted from an interview about the study (2):
Let us by all means study our genes, and their associations with our various shapes and sizes... But let's not let it distract us from the fact that our genes have not changed to account for the modern advent of epidemic obesity -- our environments and lifestyles have.
Exactly. So I don't usually pay much attention to "obesity genes", although I do think genetics contributes to how a body reacts to an unnatural diet/lifestyle. However, the first part of his statement is important too. Studying these types of associations can give us insights into the biological mechanisms of obesity when we ask the question "what do these genes do?" The processes these genes participate in should be the same processes that are most important in regulating fat mass.

So, what do the genes do? Of those that have a known function, nearly all of them act in the brain, and most act in known body fat regulation circuits in the hypothalamus (a brain region). The brain is the master regulator of body fat mass. It's also the master regulator of nearly all large-scale homeostatic systems in the body, including the endocrine (hormone) system. Now you know why I study the neurobiology of obesity.

* The authors estimated that "together, the 32 confirmed BMI loci explained 1.45% of the inter-individual variation in BMI." In other words, even if you were unlucky enough to inherit the 'fat' version of all 32 genes, which is exceedingly unlikely, you would only have a slightly higher risk of obesity than the general population.

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