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Researchers Explain the Mystery Behind the Obesity Gene

Update Date: Jul 15, 2013 01:56 PM EDT

Obesity is a growing problem throughout the world. Since obesity leads to several health complications and healthcare costs, several programs have been created to fight this problem over the past few years. Researchers have found a particular genetic flaw that appears to be responsible for increasing one's risk of obesity. This gene is believed to affect one in every six people and since today, researchers did not understand how the biological mechanisms behind the genetic flaw worked. Now, an international team of scientist reports that they have uncovered the mystery behind the gene known as FTO.

According to previous research, people with the FTO gene are more prone to giving in to fatty food cravings and are more likely to have the hunger hormone, ghrelin. This research found that people could inherit two copies of the FTO gene, one from each parent. The FTO gene can be either high risk or lost risk. Researchers found that people with high risk FTO genes were 70 percent more likely to be obese than people with the low risk version of the gene. However, researchers did not understand the differences between how the high risk version worked in comparison to the low risk version.           

Newer research headed by scientists from the University College London decided to determine how this gene directly contributes to obesity risk. The team evaluated two groups of normal sized men who were separated based on whether or not they had the high risk or low risk version of the gene. In the first test, the researchers measured the levels of ghrelin in 10 men from both groups before and after they ate a meal. The researchers found that for the high risk FTO gene group, the hormone did not fall as quickly, which meant that they would feel hunger faster than the other group. Not only did these levels fall slower, they increased at a faster rate in the group with the high risk FTO gene when compared to the group of men with the low risk version of the gene.

In another test, the researchers looked at the brain scans of both groups of men after they ate a meal. The team found that for men with the high risk FTO gene, they appeared to get more pleasure from looking at pictures of fatty foods than the men with the low risk FTO gene.

"Their brain is set up to be particularly interested in anything to do with high-calorie food," the head of the center for obesity research at the University, Dr. Rachel Batterham said to BBC. "[They were] biologically programmed to eat more."

The research team believes that the FTO gene works through the hormone. In order to offset the effects of the gene and lower one's risk of obesity, people with the high risk version must be more diligent about exercising because it lowers ghrelin levels. Researchers hope that pharmaceuticals manufactured to suppress ghrelin levels could also help lower people's risk of obesity.

"Also protein meals do lower ghrelin more, so anything that suppresses ghrelin is more likely to be effective in FTO patients," she added.

The research was published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation and funded by the Rosetrees Trust and the Medical Research Council

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