Brain Scans Reveal Anorexia's Neurological Roots
> 12/3/2007 11:11:44 AM

Even informal research has long shown certain personality types to be predisposed to the influence of eating disorders - young women tending toward anxiety and perfectionism more often develop unhealthy obsessions with food and distorted body images. New research reveals the common neurological variables relating to these symptoms and highlights the disorder's continued influence even among recovering anorexics.

While the constant influx of messages promoting unrealistic body types and effectively questioning the personal value of those who don't conform to beauty standards undoubtedly encourages the unhealthy pursuit of certain aesthetic goals, past research has strongly implicated neurological abnormalities as a significant contributor if not an outright cause of anorexia in many cases. Women who had suffered from different forms of anorexia displayed far higher levels of activity among serotonin and dopamine neurotransmitters in the brain, reflecting their increased anxieties and irregular pleasure/reward systems. If media focus were the major cause of the disorder, researchers opine, a far higher percentage of the population would suffer from diagnosable anorexia. Anxiety and dissatisfaction with one's appearance does not equal mental illness unless marked by the very clear series of symptoms defining anorexia: obsession with food content, refusal to eat or symptomatic purging behavior, dangerous weight loss, malnutrition. Every single individual, if pressed, can voice some sort of concern over imperfections in his or her appearance, but some are obviously, through a combination of genetic and environmental influences, more likely to turn that self-criticism into a debilitating compulsion.

Affected women have compromised senses of emotional pleasure, unable to enjoy the common rewards offered by good fortune or positive stimuli, and researchers implied that this trend could adversely affect the pleasure they gain from food, thereby making self-starvation a far easier task which only reinforces the lack of emotional engagement displayed on the part of these subjects.

In the most recent study, researchers gathered 13 control subjects and 13 who had recovered from struggles with anorexia and maintained a healthy body weight for at least one year. The women were then presented with a computer quiz and told that if their estimate of an unlisted number were correct, they would be awarded $2. The anterior ventral stratum, or the area of the brain most responsible for emotional responses, displayed far more activity among the healthy patients, who clearly drew more pleasure from a winning guess. The relatively low amount of related activity in the brains of anorexic women denoted their emotional numbness to this stimuli. The stratum region has also been proven highly active in reciprocal affections and other emotions associated with romance and social rewards, perhaps explaining the stereotypical observation of emotional frigidity among anorexic patients.

Interestingly, the formerly anorexic women involved in the study displayed more concern over the results of their actions despite not sharing equally in the pleasure gained from winning even this negligable "contest." Hence the conclusion that such women tend to worry far more about the future consequences of their behavior without drawing any real satisfaction from said effects. Such temperaments obviously offer certain personal benefits, including the succesful adoption of the heavily regimented lifestyles and obsessive attention to detail required by some of our more demanding professions. But beyond a certain unspecified point, what begins as a sense of personal discipline becomes a potentially debilitating ridigity that makes rewarding social interactions and relationships more difficult. This prohibitive sense of caution and a feverish drive to avoid making mistakes may ultimately prove even more destructive when it assumes the form of a chronic affectation like anorexia nervosa, "which has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder."

This research, clearly denoting inherent neurological abnormalities in the brains of anorexic patients, could encourage the development of more efficient medicinal treatments for anorexia. While anti-anxiety drugs may be prescribed and have proven somewhat successful, no specific medication has been developed to fight anorexia; personal therapy and possible inpatient treatment remain the most common responses. Unfortunately, anorexics usually experience a complimentary aversion to medications along with misplaced concerns about maintaining a sense of purity. But if and when such medications are created (and this research makes their development seem more inevitable and encouraging), they may be proven successful through clinical treatments that will quiet the fears of those affected by anorexia and help them realize that their condition is not further evidence of a fatal weakness of character. It is a deadly disease that must be appreciated and treated as such.


Thank you for spotlighting this research, and for the analysis!
Posted by: Laura Collins 12/3/2007 2:05:23 AM

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