EASO Leadership Spotlight: Professor Johannes Hebebrand – Vice President of the Northern Region

Professor Hebebrand, you have an extensive and varied background in both basic science in clinical research. How did your research interests involve when you were a young investigator?

As a young person, I was reluctant to make a career as a physician; in particular, I did not want to work over the weekend and to embark on night shifts. So I was open to alternatives. When a colleague of mine suggested I look into human genetics I immediately sensed that this could indeed be an interesting option, although I did not have a serious understanding of research and its implications. I applied to the Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Bonn, was accepted and became a member of a small research team. My academic teacher, Professor Propping, was interested in psychiatric genetics; his idea was to compare the molecular weight of the benzodiazepine receptor upon separation of membrane preparations derived from the brains of mice of different inbred strains via SDS-gel-electrophoresis. The hope was that such differences might be related to strain variation with respect to for instance anxiety proneness or sleep patterns. Unfortunately, the first experiment after only two months out of a 36 month long grant period revealed no differences. The whole research group was dismayed, because it obviously made no sense to pursue the detection of strain differences. The disappointment of my teacher and the group members led me to visit a fish store to buy a trout, to go to a slaughterhouse and the poultry institute to obtain cow and chicken brain respectively. Finally, I also struck a deal with a physiologist to obtain a frog brain. The benzodiazepine receptor showed striking differences between all species; this finding served to get my scientific career started.

Your work has been diverse and includes research on both ends of the spectrum of bodyweight regulation, eating disorders and obesity. What projects are you currently most excited about?

  1. Polygenes have been detected for several disorders. Each polygenic variant has a small effect size; only a load of such factors increases the likelihood to develop the respective disorder. It is currently unclear how to make sense of such genetic data to indeed treat diseases. I am interested in identifying genetic markers for proteins that may also be influenced by environmental factors, such as nutrition.
  2. Anorexia nervosa is a fascinating eating disorder. Because of a genetic overlap with healthy underweight the weight trajectories of patients are of interest. In addition, low leptin levels in serum are characteristic for these patients. Can the detection of low leptin levels help to make the diagnosis of this disorder easier? Should hypoleptinemia be a criterion for its diagnosis?
  3. Poor nutrition habits have been associated with mental disorders. Can dietary supplements or diets be used as an adjuvant therapy?
  4. The terms food addiction and eating addiction have been coined to describe the addictive like eating behaviour of individuals who overeat. Unfortunately, the discussion between scientists is emotionally laden: some believe that you can become addicted to for instance processed food or sugar; others argue that overeating can best be understood as an addictive behaviour. As such, I would like, through my work, to help to transcend this discussion. In addition, in my view, it is paramount to involve the food industry in our work on food, irrespective of the nature of the addiction.

In addition to your own teaching research and clinical practice, you have been an editor of the International Journal of Eating Disorders, European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Zeitschrift für Kinder- und Jugendpsychiatrie und Psychotherapie and are were editor-in-chief of Obesity Facts, the official journal of the European Association for the Study of Obesity.

I was founding editor in chief of OFA and worked with the journal through the end of 2013. I am currently the editor in chief of European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Prof. Johannes Hebebrand studied medicine at the University of Heidelberg to obtain his MD in 1983. The Children´s Centre Munich, which specialises in the treatment of physically and mentally disabled children, served as his first position. In 1984 he became a research assistant at the Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Bonn. During his five year stay in Bonn he conducted research into the ontogeny and phylogeny of the benzodiazepine binding site of the GABA-A receptor and obtained his PhD in 1990. He also became involved in psychiatric genetics, a research and clinical interest, which in 1990 led him to continue his career at the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry of the University of Marburg. He worked on the genetics of the Gilles de la Tourette Syndrome and subsequently on eating disorders and obesity. In 1995 he became head of the clinical research group “Genetic mechanisms of body weight regulation with a special focus on eating disorders and obesity” funded by the German Research Society. His group ascertained large DNA samples of children, adolescents and adults with anorexia and bulimia nervosa and obesity and together with Prof. Anke Hinney initiated molecular genetic studies of these disorders in Marburg based on candidate gene studies. In 2004 Johannes Hebebrand was appointed head of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (facilities for treatment of 50 inpatients and 31 day-care patients in addition to a large outpatient unit) of the University of Duisburg-Essen His group has recently been involved in international consortia (e.g. Genetic Investigation of ANthropometric Traits (GIANT), Genetics of Anorexia Consortium, Psychiatric GWAS Consortium) to detect polygenes for complex disorders including obesity, anorexia nervosa and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Johannes Hebebrand has been fascinated by research into the opposite ends of the body weight distribution and by assessing the implications of neuroendocrine and genetic research related to obesity for anorexia nervosa. In particular, his group figured prominently in analysing the clinical implications of the hypoleptinemia characteristic of patients with anorexia nervosa. He also has a strong interest in early onset obesity.

Prof. Hebebrand has published in diverse journals (406 entries in PubMed; May 2012). He is currently editor-in chief of European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Association. He was President of the German Society of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 2008 and 2009 and was also on the Board of the German Obesity Society.

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