Genes May Make Some People More Motivated To Eat

Armen Hareyan's picture
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Science has found one likely contributor to the way that some folks eat to live and others live to eat. Researchers at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, have found that people with genetically lower dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps make behaviors and substances more rewarding, find food to be more reinforcing than people without that genotype. In short, they are more motivated to eat and they eat more.

The findings appear in the October issue of Behavioral Neuroscience, which is published by the American Psychological Association (APA). Insights into genes and eating could inspire custom-tailored treatment programs for obesity, perhaps including genetically targeted drugs.

Led by Leonard Epstein, PhD, a distinguished professor of pediatrics and social and preventive medicine at the university's medical school, the team brought 29 obese adults and 45 adults who were not obese into the lab for a controlled study of the relationships among genotype, motivation to eat and caloric consumption.

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Epstein's team was particularly interested in the influence of the Taq1 A1 allele, a genetic variation linked to a lower number of dopamine D2 receptors and carried by about half the population (most of which carries one A1 and one A2; carriers of two A1 alleles are rare). The other half of the population carries two copies of A2, which by fostering more dopamine D2 receptors may make it easier to experience reward. People with fewer receptors need to consume more of a rewarding substance (such as drugs or food) to get that same effect.

Epstein differentiates reinforcing value, defined by how hard someone will work for food, from the "feel good" pleasure people get from food, saying, "They often go together, but are not the same thing."

Researchers measured participants' body mass, swabbed DNA samples from inside their cheeks, and had them fill out eating questionnaires. There were two behavioral tasks.

In the first task, participants rated various foods - from chips to candy bars - for taste and personal preference. This apparent preference test disguised a task that measured how much participants ate when food was freely available.

In the second task, participants could swivel between two computer stations. Pressing specified keys on one earned points to eat their favorite food; pressing keys on the other earned points to read a newspaper.

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