Hebrew U study finds genes that link anxiety to binging
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Hebrew U study finds genes that link anxiety to binging

Researchers discover ties between microRNA and metabolic disorders, such as obesity, opening up new ways for treatment

Illustrative photo of overweight people hiking at the Wingate institute in Israel. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of overweight people hiking at the Wingate institute in Israel. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Ever wonder why, when you are anxious or stressed, you hit the fridge or the kitchen cupboard for that huge piece of creamy chocolate cake or that deliciously salty pack of chips?

Well, a team of researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem now say what you have known all along in your mind and in your gut: there is a connection between anxiety and binging.

According to a study, the researchers have identified genes that control both factors. The discovery, they say, opens up new possibilities for detecting and treating anxiety and metabolic disorders.

Metabolic and anxiety-related disorders both pose a significant healthcare burden, and are in the spotlight of contemporary research and therapeutic efforts. Although intuitively we assume that these two phenomena overlap, the link has not been proven scientifically, the researchers said in a statement.

A team of researchers headed by Prof. Hermona Soreq from the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences at Hebrew University have discovered molecular elements – microRNA — that are connected to, and bridge, anxiety and metabolism.

The family of microRNA genes is part of the human genome, which was considered until not too long ago as “junk-DNA”. However, microRNAs are now known to fulfill an important role in regulating the production process of proteins by other genes. These tiny RNA molecules, which are one percent of the average size of a protein-coding gene, act as suppressors of inflammation and are able to halt the production of proteins.

“We already know that there is a connection between body and mind, between the physical and the emotional, and studies show that psychological trauma affects the activity of many genes,” said Soreq.

“Our previous research found a link between microRNA and stressful situations — stress and anxiety generate an inflammatory response and dramatically increase the expression levels of microRNA regulators of inflammation in both the brain and the gut.”

Patients with Crohn’s disease, as an example, may get worse under psychological stress, she added.

“In the present study, we added obesity to the equation,” Soreq said. “We revealed that some anxiety-induced microRNA are not only capable of suppressing inflammation but can also potentiate metabolic syndrome-related processes. In other words these genes can trigger hyper-metabolic activity, so we feel more hungry.”

“We also found that their expression level is different in diverse tissues and cells, depending on heredity and exposure to stressful situations,” she further explained.

The research paper was published in the journal Trends in Molecular Medicine.

Metabolic disorders, such as abdominal obesity and diabetes, have become a global epidemic. In the USA, the prevalence of metabolic syndrome is as high as 35 percent. In other countries, such as Austria, Denmark and Ireland, it affects 20-25% of the population, the researchers said.

Anxiety disorders are harder to quantify than metabolic ones. They include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and phobia.

This newly revealed link offers new opportunities for diagnoses and treatment of both metabolic and anxiety-related phenomena, the researchers said.

“The discovery has a diagnostic value and practical implications, because the activity of microRNAs can be manipulated by DNA-based drugs,” said Soreq. “It also offers an opportunity to reclassify ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ anxiety and metabolic-prone states,” and regulate strategies to treat these disorders.

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