Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease – Can It Be Genetic?
What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the term “fatty liver?” The liver tends to be an organ we don’t typically associate with fat or fat deposits. When most people think about having liver issues, they might assume it’s a negative consequence of years of alcoholism. But that’s not always the case.
Many people who drink little to no alcohol at all suffer from what is called Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, or NAFLD.
What Is Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease?
As the name suggests, the condition is a result of too much fat (also known as adipose) being stored in the liver cells. This is an overarching, umbrella term for a variety of different derivatives of the disease. Typically impacting those in their 40s and 50s, it also can be linked to metabolic syndromes, and more recently, it’s been investigated that it may be impacted by genetics.
This disease is more common than you might think, affecting an estimated 80 million to 100 million in the United States. While this can impact a variety of people and age groups, it is most common in those exposed to similar risks leading to heart diseases such as type 2 diabetes or obesity. (More on those risks below.)
Symptoms of Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
A person suffering with NAFLD typically shows little to no symptoms. If anything, they may experience fatigue or pain in the upper right abdomen. Because of this, the disease is often diagnosed when something else triggers investigation — like failing a liver enzyme test or viewing an enlarged liver via ultrasound. Blood tests and imaging can then be conducted to determine the severity of the disease.
Like many diseases, a healthy diet and regular exercise can be an effective way to reduce your NAFLD risk. Though the predictability of the disease is often complex and a mix of both hereditary AND environmental factors.
Causes of Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
While the specific cause of NAFLD is unknown, genetic variations and heredity have been identified as potential causes, specifically the PNPLA3 gene. This specific gene provides instructions for making a protein called adiponutrin, which is found in the adipocytes (fat cells), as well as in hepatocytes (liver cells). The function of the protein is not well understood, but it is thought to have a role in the breakdown of fats, which is also known as lipogenesis and lipolysis.
Studies indicate that the expression, or the activity of the gene, decreases for periods when an individual is fasting but increases after eating. This suggests that the amount of the adiponutrin protein is regulated depending on how much fat is needed to be broken down. The PNPLA3 variation that is believed to be associated with NAFLD is thought to lead to a decreased breakdown of fats in the liver, causing a higher accumulation. Simply put – the variation results in less protein, meaning less fat breakdown, thus potentially causing the disease.
A couple of other genes may also play a role in NAFLD. Here’s a brief summary of them:
• APOC3 – this gene encodes triglyceride-rich proteins, which can accumulate in NAFLD
• MBOAT7 – this gene is involved in lipid (fat) remodeling
• TM6SF2 – this gene regulates liver fat metabolism
Can You Inherit NAFLD?
Like the genetics behind the PNPLA3, much is unknown about the inheritance patterns of NAFLD. There is an increased risk of developing the disease if a family member has it, but the inheritance pattern is unknown. There is still much to learn about this disease, and that’s where clinical research comes into play.
Meridien Research frequently has NAFLD or NASH research studies open. Contact your nearest clinic for complete details at 888-777-8839 or visit our studies in the menu above.