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Brain Mechanisms That Control Food Choices Are Different in People With Anorexia

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People who have anorexia engage specific areas of the brain when they decide what to eat, according to a new study.

These areas of the brain are different than the ones used to control food choices in people without the eating disorder, researchers from Columbia University reported in Nature Neuroscience.

When people with anorexia are faced with decisions about food, the part of the brain associated with habitual behavior is lit up, the study found. Moreover, specific brain circuits in the fronto-striatal region were linked to an accurate prediction of how many calories an anorexic patient would choose to consume during a meal the following day.

Breaking habits

The study included 21 women with anorexia and 21 healthy controls. Researchers used MRI technology to track real-time brain activity when women made food choices. Individuals with anorexia, as expected, stuck to the behavior of choosing low-fat foods.

Based on the idea that anorexia may be rooted in brain mechanisms that control habits, the findings could open a door to new treatment modalities, the authors stated.

"We are already developing a new psychotherapy intervention built on principles of habit reversal that helps patients with anorexia nervosa change maladaptive behaviors," said Dr. Joanna Steinglass. lead co-author and associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. "As we improve our understanding of brain mechanisms, new medication targets may emerge as well."

The research may also help to shed light on how brain activity differs in people with substance abuse or gambling problems - behaviors that are linked to decision-making and habits.

"There is tremendous value in studying how the brain makes decisions in both health and disease," said co-author Dr. Daphna Shohamy. "Understanding how common brain circuits for decision-making contribute to seemingly unrelated disorders will allow researchers to focus on core disturbances and leverage treatment advances across different disorders."

Source: Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute

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