With Summer and the promise of warmer weather around the corner, it’s time to start putting away our winter coats and unpack our summer apparel. If you’re like me, you’re wondering if you still fit into last year’s summer outfits and, even more dreadful, if work is required to shed that unwanted winter weight. On the cusp of a new diet and exercise regime, I started wondering just how big of a role my genes play in weight loss. As it turns out, I’m not alone in this pondering. With the complicated interaction of genes, lifestyle, and environmental factors influencing weight, in addition to an increased microscope on the social and economic factors influencing health and wellness, it is not surprising that the genetics of weight loss is a hot research topic.
For example, within the Temple Eating Disorders program through the Psychology Department at Temple University, Principal Investigator, Dr. Eunice Chen, and her research team study a range of difficult-to-treat eating and weight disorders. Their clinical mission is to develop treatments for individuals using psychosocial methods such as Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, Family-Based Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and Mindfulness-Based Therapies. They also investigate the role that genetics plays.
In fact, earlier this year, Dr. Chen and her team published a compelling study titled Genetic and Neural Predictors of Behavioural Weight Loss Treatment: A Preliminary Study. In this study, Dr. Chen used a case-control study design with 34 female participants to explore two potential predictive biomarkers of weight loss: neural response to palatable food and genotype. They were specifically interested in understanding how behavioural therapy for weight loss affects regions in the brain, and whether these neural factors and genotypes, in combination with Behavioural Weight Loss (BWL) therapy, predict weight loss outcomes.
Behavioural weight loss therapy and our genes
Behavioural therapy is a form of psychotherapy broadly focused on learned behaviours and the thoughts and feelings associated with them. BWL therapy is the most common intervention for obesity, although little is known about the neural changes associated with this treatment. In Dr. Chen’s study, half the participants attended BWL sessions weekly for 12 weeks led by a registered dietitian or a clinical psychologist, while the other half received no medical intervention. Neural activation to palatable food (e.g. a milkshake) was assessed by Magnetic Resonance Imaging at baseline and at 12 weeks.
The study focused on the aptly-named fat mass and obesity-associated (FTO) gene. The FTO gene has previously been associated with Body Mass Index, and may influence obesity risk through macronutrient intake and a reduced satiety response. In fact, previous research with BWL trials have shown that individuals possessing the obesity-predisposing A allele (A/A or T/A genotype) of the FTO single nucleotide polymorphism lose almost twice as much weight than those with the homozygous T genotype. To accomplish this genetic analysis, it was imperative for Dr. Chen’s group to successfully collect DNA and accurately determine the FTO genotype. They were able to do so by collecting DNA from saliva using Oragene®·DISCOVER collection kits from all participants and genotyping these samples using DNA Genotek’s bioinformatics and reporting services.
After the genetic and neural responses to palatable food were assessed, both group’s weight were measured at 12, 36, and 60 weeks. The results showed the BWL treatment group lost more weight than the controls at 12 weeks. Notably, in the frontostriatal region of the brain, the study found that a reduction in activation to palatable food in BWL participants from baseline to 12 weeks predicted weight loss at all time points. Additionally, the study confirmed that possessing the A allele of the FTO variant predicted weight loss.
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 Chen EY et al. Genetic and Neural Predictors of Behavioural Weight Loss Treatment: A Preliminary Study. Obesity (Silver Spring). 25(1):66-75 (2017).
 Xiang L et al. FTO genotype and weight loss in diet and lifestyle interventions: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr. 103:1162-1170 (2016).
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