Summary: The prevalence of obesity is rising at an alarming rate. It is not just a behavioral disorder. It appears that changes in physical activity level and food intake have much to do with changes in the brain during early life. These neurodevelopmental disabilities occur due to epigenetics, thus influencing appetite and physical activity levels. More than 70% of the US population is either obese or overweight. Obesity is one of the most important risk factors for a range of health conditions like heart attack, stroke, some cancers, and even depression and dementia.
What is worrisome is that overweight and obesity keeps rising despite many efforts and raised awareness. It seems that people are becoming more and more addicted to food. Therefore, researchers think that obesity is not just a behavioral disorder and there is something more to it. Quite likely, obesity is the result of much graver brain changes. These brain changes are likely being passed from one generation to another, and that is why cases of overweight and obesity keep rising and it has become even more common in young adults and children.
Of course, we know that genes do not change quickly. Such a significant rise in conditions like obesity or diabetes cannot be explained based on genetic mutations alone. However, we now know that though genetic changes take a long time to happen, epigenetic changes may occur quickly. Many people are unaware of epigenetics as it is a relatively new concept in genetics. It seems that although genes do not change significantly in a few decades, the activity levels of various genes may change.
Epigenetic studies show that lifestyle choices can also alter gene expression. And these changes in gene expression can be passed to the future generation. Such epigenetic modifications may occur quickly, and then they keep affecting future generations. A new study shows that epigenetic changes might be causing neurodegenerative disorders and thus influencing appetite. In addition, dysregulation in appetite is becoming more prevalent as the information is passed from one generation to another, ultimately taking the shape of a neurodevelopmental disability. This means that coming generations are more likely to live with certain brain changes associated with poor appetite control.
In the new study, researchers focused on the epigenetic changes in the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus. This part of the brain is related to appetite regulation, metabolism, and physical activity. The new study found that this part of the brain undergoes extensive epigenetic changes in early life, making people prone to consequences of obesity1. Studies in mice models have confirmed that changes in this brain region are associated with higher obesity risk. Whereas genome-wide association studies confirm increasing DNA methylation of the part of the gene, increased gene expression, and thus the risk of obesity.
To date, researchers have looked at various factors causing obesity, from changing lifestyles, food habits, environment, and so on. However, they have paid limited attention to genetic changes, as such changes cannot occur quickly. However, now armed with the knowledge of epigenetics, they are relooking at many things. Things are now changing as researchers have understood that though genetic changes do not occur quickly, epigenetic changes may occur quickly.
Significant changes in genes occur over a long time, but changes in gene expression happen quickly. There could be many ways of reducing the risk of these epigenetic changes, like tackling obesity in young adults. Similarly, it is vital to prevent consequences of obesity in children, as once specific brain changes have occurred at a young age, they are almost impossible to reverse. Finally, it is also vital for young adults of childbearing age to realize that by making wrong lifestyle choices, they are not only spoiling their health but also putting future generations at an increased risk of various health disorders.
The Bottom Line
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By Gurpreet Singh Padda, MD, MBA, MHP