A genetic study of more than 90,000 people has identified six new genetic variants that are associated with increased Body Mass Index (BMI), the most commonly used measure of obesity. Five of the genes are known to be active in the brain, suggesting that many genetic variants implicated in obesity might affect behaviour, rather than the chemical processes of energy or fat metabolism.
Obesity is an increasing problem that results in individual risk to health as well as increasing burdens on health care systems. By identifying genetic variants that affect obesity, researchers hope to understand better the mechanisms regulating energy balance, which will guide the development of new therapies and help to develop improved diagnosis.
The study is published in Nature Genetics by the GIANT Consortium and includes authors from more than 60 institutions.
"It might seem remarkable that it is the brain that is most commonly influenced by genetic variation in obesity, rather than fat tissue or digestive processes," says Dr Ines Barroso, a senior author on the study, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. "Until 2007, no genetic associations had been found for 'common obesity', but today almost all those we have uncovered are likely to influence brain function."
Increase in weight occurs when calories taken in exceed calories burned, but behind that simple equation lie behavioural processes such as appetite and satiety, as well as the biochemical mechanisms our bodies use to process foods and use stores of energy, such as fat tissue. A part of the brain called the hypothalamus controls many of our basic functions such as body temperature, hunger and fluid balance: it is programmed to maintain the status quo.
"Very occasionally, mutations in genes active in the hypothalamus have dramatic consequences for weight gain," explains Dr Ruth Loos, a leading author from the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit, "such that
|Contact: Don Powell|
Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute