CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - A new initiative at UNC-Chapel Hill is kicking off a genetic study of eating disorders that it says will be the largest of its kind.
If successful, the study, conducted by the Eating Disorders Genetic Initiative (EDGI), will be able to identify hundreds of genes that influence a person's likelihood of suffering from three prominent disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder.
That knowledge could significantly improve the way those illnesses are treated, said Cynthia Bulik, a professor at the UNC School of Medicine and head of EDGI.
"It might help us with prediction and prevention in the future," Bulik said in a phone interview. "That is a direction we hope to go in - help us identify those who are high risk."
Eating disorders affect a large number of people. About 9% of Americans, or 28.8 million, will have an eating disorder in their lifetime, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
And that number could be increasing, as the coronavirus pandemic pushes the country into a mental health crisis as well. Bulik recently coauthored a study of individuals with eating disorders in the U.S. and the Netherlands that reported an increase in anxiety during the pandemic, which has disrupted the lives and routines of millions.
"We are clearly in the midst of a mental health pandemic," Bulik said. "The things (participants) talked about most was the lack of structure in their days ... (and) a lack of social support. Eating disorders thrive in isolation."
While there have been numerous psychiatric studies of eating disorders, the biologic underpinnings of the illness are still relatively unknown, and there are no medications to treat eating disorders
"Part of that is because we haven't understood the biology of eating disorders," she said.
EDGI is seeking 100,000 people across the world with a history of an eating disorder to volunteer as part of the genetic study. In the U.S., it is looking to reach 6,000 participants. In addition to genetics, EDGI will also survey participants from around the world to see how environmental factors influence the disorders.