Appetite genes control how quickly infants grow — may reveal obesity treatment

BERGEN, Norway — Newborn babies epitomize the phrase “good things come in small packages.” These little bundles of joy grow quickly, however, at rates unseen across any other period of the human lifespan. Now, researchers from the University of Bergen say this amazing growth spurt has a lot to do with our genes controlling appetite.

Study authors explain this work may answer long unanswered questions regarding the bodily mechanisms controlling appetite and energy metabolism very early in life. This study may also open up the possibility for future obesity treatments during both adolescence and adulthood.

Infants gain weight incredibly quickly. The average baby will see their length jump up by 50 percent and weight double during infancy alone. After that point, growth stagnates a bit, entering into a “stable phase” during childhood in preparation for further growth spurts during puberty.

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Certain genes link to ‘extreme obesity’

In pursuit of some clarity on what is driving these major infancy growth spurts, researchers analyzed genes from 30,000 kids and their parents. Scientists originally collected this genetic data as part of the Norwegian Mother, Father and Child Cohort of Norway. Researchers analyzed millions of genetic variants from each individual and connected them with growth data from various height and weight measurements between birth and the age of eight.

“It turned out that genes linked to extreme obesity, appetite and the body’s energy consumption are responsible for the growth regulation,” professor Pål R. Njølstad says in a media release.

“This is dynamic in that specific genes have an effect only on some of the different phases of growth. We believe that this is probably one of the reasons why parents have always noted that some children are born with a naturally higher appetite than others and have significantly more fat mass in infancy. It seems that these dynamic effects are especially important in the first years of life, and that they do not increase the risk of later obesity,” he continues.

Researchers say this work has attracted some serious attention already. Some of the genes are associated with drugs that are currently being tested to slow weight gain in cases of extreme obesity. So, these findings may one day help treat obesity in general as well.

The study is published in the journal Nature Metabolism.