GENERAL SESSION 2 - Biological Underpinnings: Eating Disorders, Gene-Environment Interactions and the Epigenome

Everyone knows that the environment shapes our personalities and the expression of our inherent behavioral and emotional tendencies. But the answer to the question “How exactly does the environment do these things?” is not so obvious. Epigenetic mechanisms are believed to link environmental exposures to gene expression, and in so doing, to provide a physical basis for the activation, by life experiences, of behavioral and emotional problems—among them, eating disorders. This presentation is about gene-environment interactions and epigenetic processes in the eating disorders. For researchers, treatment professionals, activists, educators, family members and individuals personally affected, the talk provides a background on molecular (genetic and epigenetic) mechanisms that bridge the gap between life stresses (like birth complications, childhood adversities, performance pressures, and effects of malnutrition) and eating disorders. It will be argued that an epigenetically informed understanding of eating-disorder development “humanizes” therapy, blames affected people and their families less, helps explain why eating disorders cross generations within affected families, and clarifies why eating disorders (once established) become so entrenched. Finally, the talk will examine the potentials of an epigenetically informed model to facilitate the development of more effective, person-centered treatments.