Study Reveals How People With Eating Disorders Go So Long Without Eating

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To the typical person living without an eating disorder, enduring hunger cravings can seem impossible. Those who live with eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia do this every day. Some have speculated that eating disorder survivors’ ability to push through hunger could be tied to an intense drive to achieve a weight or other outside factors.

According to a new study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, however, people with an eating disorder may be able to withstand longer periods of time without food because their brains have been rewired to suppress appetite.

The researchers say typical patterns of appetite stimulation are reversed in the brain of people with eating disorders are reversed and overridden by signals from other parts of the brain.

For the small study, researchers from the University of Colorado School of Medicine recruited 77 women – 26 had been diagnosed with restricting-type anorexia nervosa, 25 had bulimia nervosa, and 26 had no history of eating disorders. The team then evaluated their brain’s response to consuming a sugary solution using brain scans.

As the results of the scans show, the pathways to the hypothalamus – a portion of the brain essential for producing hormones controlling body functions like hunger – were “significantly weaker.” The researchers also observed that the signals were traveling in the reverse direction they typically travel in women with eating disorders.

“As a result, their brain may be able to override the hypothalamus and fend off the signals to eat,” lead author Dr. Guido Frank explained. The team theorizes that this can make some people with eating disorders fearful of specific food or affect the brain’s response to taste-reward and appetite.

“The appetite region of the brain should drive you off your chair to get something to eat,” he said in the university statement. “But in patients with anorexia or bulimia nervosa that is not the case.”

The next step, Frank says, is to see if the phenomenon is also occurring in adolescents or children. “We want to replicate the results in adults. And most importantly, we want to see whether we can use this approach as a marker for treatment success in the future — maybe giving us an objective marker for treatment success.”

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