Diet and activity play a highly significant role in maintaining a healthy weight. Mayo Clinic experts are debating whether poor eating habits and a less active lifestyle can fully explain the prevalence of obesity in the US today. That question has led some researchers to ask whether there might be other causes for this serious problem.
“The cause of obesity is not a secret -- if you consume more calories than you burn in daily activity, you gain weight. What is interesting is that much of the obesity epidemic cannot be explained just by Americans eating more and exercising less. There are other factors at play, and viruses causing obesity may be one of them,” say Dr. Atkinson.
Dr. Atkinson, director of Obetech Obesity Research Center in Richmond, Va., reviewed multiple published articles that demonstrate a connection between viral infections and obesity. His article in Mayo Clinic Proceedings discusses five animal viruses and three human viruses that have been shown to cause obesity in laboratory studies.
According to Dr. Atkinson, several studies offer ample evidence that animals infected with certain human viruses experience excess weight gain and fat storage. When researchers infected animal subjects with a human virus known as Human Ad-36, they reported measurable increases in the infected animals’ body fat and the visceral fat that surrounds the organs deep within the belly. In addition, studies also demonstrated that infection with Ad-36 and the resulting weight gain could be transmitted from infected animals to uninfected animals.
Information on virus-induced obesity in human subjects is much more limited. Citing his own study conducted in 2005, Dr. Atkinson also showed a connection between obesity and exposure to the Ad-36 virus in humans.
Dr. Atkinson’s study screened for antibodies to Ad-36 (a sign of exposure to this virus) in 502 people of varying body weights, both obese and non-obese, from three cities in the United States. Ad-36 antibodies were found in 30 percent of obese individuals and 11 percent of lean individuals. Study results also showed highly significant differences in body mass index (BMI) between antibody-positive and antibody-negative individuals.
“Antibody-positive twins were slightly, but significantly, heavier and fatter than their antibody negative co-twins,” says Dr. Atkinson. “The infected twins had a higher BMI and a greater percent of body fat than the uninfected co-twins.”
What’s the next step for this research? According to Dr. Atkinson, “the body of evidence linking adenoviruses to obesity in humans is now sufficient to think about the next step. Ideally, we could prevent infection and virus-induced obesity with a vaccine for the obesity viruses. Development of a human vaccine will take several years.”