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The Brain On Anorexia: What’s Different About It


Scientists such as Dr. Walter Kaye, University of California San Diego, have studied the brain circuitry of those with anorexia nervosa. What he and others have found is increasing our understanding of the biology behind eating disorders and is pointing the way to more effective treatment methods.

By using the latest brain imaging technology, scientists are mapping the unique neurological wiring in people with anorexic tendencies. Realizing that there are glitches in brain activity present with eating disorders can help to dispel the stigma and guilt that many individuals with this diagnosis experience.

Two Things Different About an Anorexic’s Brain

1. Pleasure Response is Diminished

In one of Kaye’s studies, the subjects were people who had recovered from symptoms of anorexia but still had the anxieties and temperaments that underlie the diagnosis. They were fed a small amount of sugar, and their brain’s pleasure response to tasting it was observed.

The brain of a non-anorexic individual, after tasting sugar, registers a pleasurable sensory response to the taste of sugar. However, the brains of the study subjects who had recovered from anorexia did not register this pleasure response when tasting sugar. Their brain’s pleasure response to the sweetness is somehow “blunted” or numbed.

2. Faulty Messaging

A body’s homeostatic responses are those designed to keep our biological systems stable and functioning. For instance, if you hold your breath a long time your body will eventually have a homeostatic response, “making” you take a breath so that you do not pass out or die.

One homeostatic response people regularly experience is the message or feeling of, “I need to eat something.” After they eat, people feel better. This homeostatic signal does not seem to reach people with anorexic tendencies. For some reason, they feel better when they do not eat and become more uncomfortable if they do.

There is obviously some neurological mix-up in the brain wiring between pleasure and consequences. It is also possible that neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin are out of balance. Whatever is going on, these brain glitches intensify when an individual who has them develops the symptoms of anorexia.

It’s More Than Body Image

The cause of anorexia, and other eating disorders, is more complex than the desire to be thin. Researchers are discovering genetic factors, personality tendencies, and neurological issues that all interact with environmental factors or events to trigger the illness. That is not to say the fashion industry’s obsession with being ultra-thin is healthy. The growing presence of plus-size models in the media is welcome.

Source: The Starving Brain