Systems In The Brain Reward People With Anorexia For Unhealthy Eating Choices

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In a recent study, researchers from the New York Psychiatric Institute, Columbia University, and New York University have found that individuals with anorexia nervosa show notably more activity in a specific region of the brain linked with habitual behavior compared to healthy participants.

salad-374173_640Doctors and researchers have often been puzzled by how individuals with anorexia nervosa are able to consistently choose low-calorie, low-fat foods even when reaching the point of starvation. However, the new research shows this behavior isn’t the result of extreme will-power. Instead, it appears to be related to how the brain rewards their eating choices and develops habits.

For the study published in Nature Neuroscience, the researchers monitored the brains of 21 hospitalized anorexic women as they chose food, using fMRI brain scan technology. The team then compared their findings with scans taken from 21 healthy women as they undertook the same activity.

The team found the dorsal striatum “lit up” in the scans from women with anorexia more than normal as they chose food. The dorsal striatum helps regulate movement and memory, sleep, and social behavior. It is also believed to play and essential role in decision-making by influencing habits and goal-related actions.

In the women with anorexia, the scans also showed significantly greater connectivity in the fronto-striatal circuits as they considered low-fat food choices. In comparison, the healthy individuals showed greater connectivity as they picked rich foods high in far. The fronto-striatal circuits are essential for executive function, regulating the brain’s ability to select and perceive important information, to plan and organize, and to manipulate working memory and make decisions.

Together, this indicates the brain is actively rewarding individuals with anorexia for choosing low-fat foods, even when they know they are not receiving a proper level of nutrition, which is then reinforced through habit forming mechanisms.

The researchers believe the findings could pave the way for new treatment and intervention methods, including new medications that may help individuals with anorexia change unhealthy eating habits.

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