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Human obesity: a heritable neurobehavioural disorder

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  • UserProfessor Steve O’Rahilly, Department of Clinical Biochemistry, Cambridge
  • ClockWednesday 30 September 2009, 14:30-15:00
  • HouseWest Road Concert Hall.

If you have a question about this talk, please contact Hannah Critchlow.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Clinical Neuroscience and Mental Health Symposium, 29th – 30th September 2009 at West Road Concert Hall. This event is free to attend for cambridge neuroscientists although registration is required. To register, and for further information, please visit:

Abstract: The recent increase in the worldwide prevalence of obesity has understandably focused attention on the environmental determinants of this “epidemic”. While identifying the relative contributions of the factors underlying this recent trend is critical, a comprehensive understanding of the causes of obesity will need to explain why, even in high risk populations, many people remain lean. Contemporary studies indicate that the heritability of adiposity remains high, even in the face of a strongly obesogenic environment. While the role of inheritance has long been appreciated, only recently have we begun to develop a genuine understanding of the critical role of specific molecules in sensing the state of nutrient storage and regulating food intake and energy expenditure. Notably, a number of single gene disorders resulting in human obesity have been uncovered and, strikingly, all of these defects impair the central control of food intake. Early indications are that common genetic variants influencing adiposity on a population level impact on the same processes. While the rising prevalence of obesity is related to increasing ease of access to high-energy palatable food combined with diminishing requirement for physical activity, differences in inter-individual susceptibility to obesity are likely to be related to inherited variation in the efficiency of central control mechanisms influencing eating behaviour. Such a construct understandably courts unpopularity as it can appear to diminish the importance of human free will and is perceived by some as representing a counsel of despair and an “excuse” for otherwise controllable behaviour. We argue that a view of obesity that emphasises the profound biological basis for inter-individual differences in responding to the challenges of achieving a healthy control of nutrient intake should result in a more enlightened attitude to people with obesity with a consequent reduction in their experience of social and economic discrimination. In the longer term, this may also lead to more efficacious, individually-targeted approaches to the treatment and prevention of obesity.

Biography: Stephen O’Rahilly graduated in Medicine from University College Dublin in 1981. From 1982 to 1991 he undertook postgraduate clinical and research training in general medicine, diabetes and endocrinology in London, Oxford and Harvard. In 1991 he obtained a Wellcome Trust Senior Clinical Fellowship and established his laboratory at the University of Cambridge at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. In 1996 he was appointed to a newly created Chair of Metabolic Medicine and in 2002 to the Chair of Clinical Biochemistry and Medicine at the University of Cambridge. He is currently Head of the University Department of Clinical Biochemistry. His research has been concerned with the elucidation of the basic causes of obesity and Type 2 diabetes at a molecular level. His work has uncovered several previously unrecognised genetic causes of these diseases including some that are amenable to specific treatment. He has won many awards for his work including the Society for Endocrinology Medal, the Graham Bull Prize of the Royal College of Physicians of London, the European Journal of Endocrinology Prize, the Novartis International Award for Clinical Research in Diabetes, the Clinical Investigator Award of the Endocrine Society, the Heinrich Wieland Prize, the Rolf Luft Award and the Feldberg Award. He was elected to the Academy of Medical Sciences in 1999 and to the Royal Society in 2003. He has a continuing commitment to clinical practice in endocrinology and diabetes and the teaching of clinical medical students. He is Service Centre Director of the NHS Clinical Biochemistry Department of Addenbrooke’s Hospital. He has made important contributions to the development of infrastructure for clinical research on the Addenbrooke’s campus. He was the founding Director of Addenbrooke’s Hospital Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Facility (est. 2000) and led the University’s efforts to fund and establish the Institute of Metabolic Science (IMS). This Institute opened in 2007 and is co-directed by O’Rahilly and Dr Nick Wareham whose MRC Epidemiology Unit is located in the IMS . He has contributed more generally to UK clinical science through his Chairmanship of the Wellcome Trust Clinical Interest Group and service on the research committees of several charities. He is currently Chairman of the Medical Research Society and of the MRC Translational Research Overview Group, and a member of the Council of the Society for Endocrinology.

This talk is part of the Clinical Neuroscience and Mental Health Symposium series.

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