The identification of a causal genetic variant associated with obesity in childhood could pave the way for new therapies which target the variant’s actions.

The research has shed fresh light on the importance of the brain’s hypothalamus – the area which helps to produce hormones – and the role it plays in childhood obesity.

The findings underscore how the brain is central to the genetics of obesity, says the team from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) which carried out the study.

Previous research has demonstrated that neuronal pathways in the hypothalamus control food consumption and are key regulators for childhood obesity. Past studies by CHOP researchers identified genetic markers – loci – which are associated with obesity.

This latest study homed in on chr12q13, a locus accommodating nearby gene FAIM2, which produced a significantly stronger signal with childhood obesity in comparison to adult obesity.

First study author Sheridan H. Littleton, a postdoctoral research associate, said: “By focusing specifically on this locus, we were able to pinpoint a causal variant associated with one of the strongest genetic signals we have implicated in childhood obesity.

“With more research, there’s potential to learn how the target of this variant’s action may be a target for new therapies specifically designed to treat childhood obesity.”

The locus chr12q13 has also been linked to other health issues, including increased risk of type 2 diabetes, increased body fat percentage in children and adults, and menstruation starting at an earlier age.

Struan F.A. Grant, Director of the Center for Spatial and Functional Genomics and the Daniel B. Burke Endowed Chair for Diabetes Research at CHOP, said: “In spite of a series of challenges, a study like this demonstrates how extra effort can reveal important information about hitherto uncharacterised genetic variants and the role they play in a variety of childhood and adult illnesses.

“This work further underscores how the brain is central to the genetics of obesity and provides us with a strategy for further study.”

Read the full study in Cell Genomics.

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