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Eating disorders have long been discussed in strictly psychiatric terms, but a study from the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders is reconceptualizing these illnesses. Through international genetic sampling, Cynthia Bulik, PhD, the center’s founding director, aims to puzzle out the biological factors behind eating disorders and improve the success of treatments.

Cynthia Bulik was a research assistant working in childhood depression when the lightbulb went off. She was assigned to a sleep study focused on depression and anorexia and decided to familiarize herself with the latter. A week shadowing a psychiatrist at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital in Pittsburgh was enough to make her realize she had been surrounded by eating disorders for much of her life.

A lifelong figure skater, Bulik suddenly understood what happened to so many of her friends, as they would progressively lose weight and eventually leave the sport.  She recalls that in the 1970s and ’80s, eating disorders and other psychiatric illnesses were still heavily stigmatized and ignored.

“I thought, God, this is what’s been going on with my friends,” she says.

Since 1982, Bulik has dedicated herself to investigating causes and treatments for eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. She is the founding director of the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders — a world leader in treatment, research, and training around eating disorders since its opening in 2003 — and director of the Centre for Eating Disorders Innovation at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. Bulik’s goal is to build a bridge between the two centers.

Nearly four decades after her worlds of academia and competitive skating converged, Bulik’s passion for the subject remains steadfast. Now, she is leading an international study on eating disorders called the Eating Disorders Genetics Initiative (EDGI). The project is a multi-site, global effort to rapidly and efficiently sample, genotype, and catalogue 100,000 participant surveys and saliva samples for anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder. UNC and its four official collaborators — located in the United States, New Zealand, Australia, and Denmark — aim to contribute at least 25,000 participants, including their survey results and genetic samples, to the effort. Genetics are a formerly neglected side of eating disorder research and treatment.

A grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) funds four EDGI sites. Other countries are involved outside of the center’s collaborations, too, including planned sites in Sweden, England, the Netherlands, and Mexico.

The study is an effort to answer a fundamental question: Where do genetic differences lie?

Read the rest of the story at Endeavors, UNC’s online magazine dedicated to research and creative activity.