Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Can't Stop Eating? For Some People, Obesity Is Not a Simple Failure of Self-Control

“Imagine feeling hungry -- starving, even -- all the time, no matter how much you eat. So hungry that you would shoplift, sneak, steal or secretly order takeout food to sate your appetite, without regard for consequences. Kate Kane doesn't have to imagine; she knows. Washington Post readers met Kane in November 2004 when Ranit Mishori, a physician who frequently writes for the paper, reported on Kane's struggle with hyperphagia, or excessive eating. As Mishori noted, Kane's ravenous desire for food is a key symptom of Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS), a genetic disorder that affects not only appetite but also muscle tone, metabolism, stature and cognitive ability. About 4,500 Americans are known to have the syndrome, but experts believe it may be undiagnosed in as many as 25,000 others. Kane's father, Jim Kane of Towson, this month helped organize a conference for researchers who work with genetic disorders that are characterized by hyperphagia. The event's prime goal was to have participants join forces to learn what causes hyperphagia, in hope of eventually devising a treatment or cure. Those who gathered in Baltimore for the conference, including researchers from the National Institutes of Health, have another aim, though, one with far broader implications. If they can tease out the physiological, genetic and chemical causes of hyperphagia among people with disorders, that knowledge may prove a potent tool in combating obesity in the general population. ‘The main message is that hunger and obesity are not just a matter of self-control,’ says Janalee Heinemann, director of research and medical affairs for the Prader-Willi Syndrome Association. ‘It's a pretty big, complex puzzle. Each system [of the body] plays into this and makes a difference, and each person is different.’ ‘In my more naive days, I thought we just needed to find the right pill,’ Heinemann says. Now, given what she's learned about the complex nature of b’th PWS and obesity, ‘I don't think there's going to be a pill.’”

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