Understanding eating disorders

Researchers have moved a step closer to understanding eating disorders – a move which could ultimately lead to better diagnosis and treatment of the conditions.

It is estimated the NHS spends around £1.6 billion a year on eating disorders, but despite these efforts anorexia nervosa has the highest death rate of all psychiatric conditions, with between 5% and 20% dying from the condition.

It is estimated the NHS spends around £1.6 billion a year on eating disorders, but despite these efforts anorexia nervosa has the highest death rate of all psychiatric conditions, with between 5% and 20% dying from the condition.

The psychological effects of eating disorders are well documented, with sufferers experiencing body image disturbance – which typically means they become preoccupied with body weight and shape and have a distorted image of themselves which leads to a loathing of their own body.

Now researchers at the University of Essex have discovered physical differences in the way the brains of women with eating disorders react when they look at other people, and in particular other women.

Katie Groves, who led on the research which has been published in the journal Biological Psychology, explained: “In our laboratory tests we measured brain responses in two groups – one with a history of eating disorders and one without.

“We found a marked difference between the groups. Early brain responses to the human body, and other women’s bodies in particular, differed according to how the women thought and felt about their own body. We also found these differences increased alongside the severity of eating disorder symptoms.”

In further investigations, published in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers were able to show, for the first time, that these early responses are consistently reliable indications of when the brain detects another person’s body.

“By establishing these responses are stable in a healthy population, we are now able to consider tracking or monitoring them in those with eating disorders. By doing this, we could assess when these processes begin to change and if they can return to normal. There’s still a long way to go and much more work is needed, but we hope we have started a trajectory of research that could ultimately lead to improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of these conditions.”

It’s thought the stigma attached to eating disorders could put some people off seeking help. Knowing there might be a physical symptom of their condition could make it easier for them to acknowledge their illness and get the help they need.

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The Hippocratic Editorial and VT team. Please send your suggestions to [email protected]
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