Team McCallum

R&D for Lifetime of Life

FTO gene, obesity, Alzheimer’s.

A study by Paul M Thompson, Professor of Neurology at UCLA, has kicked off a spate of articles on both sides of the Atlantic, with varying angles – the FTO gene shrinks your brain – 46% of white people have it – it makes you fat – it gives you Alzheimer’s.

Olivia Judson has done a New York Times article called Brain Damage – Being Fat is bad for your brain, that rounds-up many pieces of research. (She credits the FTO paper to April J Ho, the first named author.)

Thompson was quoted in Aug 2009 on this research. Then he attributed the reduced brain size to clogged arteries reducing blood flow and oxygen to the brain.

The actual research paper makes it clear that FTO alone does not result in brain loss – it is only when body mass index (BMI) goes up that brain loss is detected. However, those without FTO don’t get the brain loss effect with increasing BMI.

Studies have shown that activity can cut, significantly, any increase in BMI due to FTO.

The FTO variants that put people at risk are thought to occur in 46% of white people, 51% of black people, but only 16% of people from East Asia. One copy of the bad gene adds 1.2kg (3lbs), while 2 adds 3kg (6-7lbs), so FTO does not explain obesity in general.

In the Journal of Human Genetics in Dec 2009, 31 scientists combined to look at whether gene variants known to be linked to obesity in white people also did so in Japanese people. So they tested SEC16B, TMEM18, GNPDA2, BDNF, Faim2, MC4R, NEGR1, ETV5, MTCH2, SH2B1, MAF, NCP1, PRL and KCTD15. Only the first 2 came up really guilty, suggesting there are yet more fat genes to come.

Bottom line – we’re a long way from knowing all the linkages. For example, would overweight people with FTO who exercise show brain shrinkage?

Watch what you eat and keep active.

UPDATE Please read the comment, which is a response by Professor Thompson.


April 21, 2010 - Posted by | Activity, Alzheimer's, Brain, Exercise, FTO rs9939609, Genetics, Japan, Obesity, Olivia Judson, Paul M Thompson, Weight management


  1. Thanks for posting this! We’re now studying whether exercising (or really just any kind of physical activity) can counteract the brain tissue deficits. It looks like the answer is yes for the FTO effect on body weight – walking 2 extra miles per day (which is quite a lot) is enough to counteract the effect of carrying the bad FTO variant (equivalent to consuming 200 less calories per day). If the effect is just vascular insufficiency then this makes sense as exercise will counteract this vascular damage and improve the oxygen supply to the brain. But it would be interesting (and more difficult to resist) if there was a direct adverse effect of the bad FTO variant on the brain, over and above its effect on obesity, which we cannot yet rule out.
    Paul Thompson, UCLA

    Comment by Paul Thompson | April 23, 2010 | Reply

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ange McCallum, TeamMcCallum. TeamMcCallum said: Our article on a study of FTO/brain shrinkage by neuroscientist Paul Thompson just got a reply from the prof himself. […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention FTO gene, obesity, Alzheimer’s. « Team McCallum -- | April 23, 2010 | Reply

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