Prenatal stress programs binge eating – a balanced diet can prevent eating disorder

Binge eating disorder is a common eating disorder, affecting up to 3% of the population with a higher prevalence in women. The disorder is characterized by frequent episodes of eating large amounts of food within a short time period. The eating is compulsive, with the patient often saying they feel it is out of their control. Binge eating disorder patients will often be overweight and as such have increased risk for high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Often, individuals with binge eating disorder also suffer from depression and low self-esteem and are more prone to anxiety disorders.

It is well-known that the prenatal environment is able to affect the offspring in later life and may make male and females susceptible to different diseases. Mariana Schroeder, a postdoctoral fellow in the research group of Alon Chen and first author, designed this study to investigate if this phenomenon plays a role in eating disorders.

Using a mouse model, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry were able to biologically mimic activation of the central stress response during late pregnancy. They then challenged the offspring in adolescence to see if they were predisposed to binge-eating behaviour. They found that the female offspring from the prenatally stressed mothers were much more likely to develop binge eating behaviour than the female offspring of unstressed mothers.

Schroeder explains “We were then interested in finding out how exactly the stress causes the offspring to be predisposed to binge eating behaviour. We found that many molecules in the hypothalamus of the predisposed offspring were epigenetically different. However, this gestational programming does not always lead to binge eating. It needs to be triggered during adolescence and only then are the pre-existing alterations due to prenatal programming revealed.”

Alon Chen, the Institute’s director, is excited about his group’s findings: “Perhaps the most remarkable part of this study was that we were able to completely prevent the binge eating behaviour from being triggered by simply giving the adolescent mice a balanced diet.” Chen then adds “this study provides us with mechanistic evidence that prenatal programming underlies binge eating disorder. It also gives us some crucial insight into a much neglected field of research.”

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