Background: Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) has been found to be important in energy homeostasis in animal models, but little is known about its role in energy balance in humans. Heterozygous, variably sized, contiguous gene deletions causing haplo-insufficiency of the WT1 and PAX6 genes on chromosome 11p13, approximately 4 Mb centromeric to BDNF (11p14.1), result in the Wilms' tumor, aniridia, genitourinary anomalies, and mental retardation (WAGR) syndrome. Hyperphagia and obesity were observed in a subgroup of patients with the WAGR syndrome. We hypothesized that the subphenotype of obesity in the WAGR syndrome is attributable to deletions that induce haploinsufficiency of BDNF. Methods: We studied the relationship between genotype and body-mass index (BMI) in 33 patients with the WAGR syndrome who were recruited through the International WAGR Syndrome Association. The extent of each deletion was determined with the use of oligonucleotide comparative genomic hybridization. Results: Deletions of chromosome 11p in the patients studied ranged from 1.0 to 26.5 Mb; 58% of the patients had heterozygous BDNF deletions. These patients had significantly higher BMI z scores throughout childhood than did patients with intact BDNF (mean [±SD] z score at 8 to 10 years of age, 2.08±0.45 in patients with heterozygous BDNF deletions vs. 0.88±1.28 in patients without BDNF deletions; P=0.03). By 10 years of age, 100% of the patients with heterozygous BDNF deletions (95% confidence interval [CI], 77 to 100) were obese (BMI ≥95th percentile for age and sex) as compared with 20% of persons without BDNF deletions (95% CI, 3 to 56; P<0.001). The critical region for childhood-onset obesity in the WAGR syndrome was located within 80 kb of exon 1 of BDNF. Serum BDNF concentrations were approximately 50% lower among the patients with heterozygous BDNF deletions (P=0.001). Conclusions: Among persons with the WAGR syndrome, BDNF haploinsufficiency is associated with lower levels of serum BDNF and with childhood-onset obesity; thus, BDNF may be important for energy homeostasis in humans.
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