Anorexia Nervosa is a serious eating disorder that affects approximately 0.5% of the American female population and approximately 0.05% of the American male population, according to the American Psychiatric Association (2000). Anorexia has severe medical consequences as an individual continues to starve himself or herself. However, a recent study indicates that the loss of brain matter seen in individuals with anorexia can be reversed.
Anorexia nervosa generally begins in mid to late adolescence. In order to be diagnosed with anorexia, an individual must meet several criteria set forth in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV-TR. These criteria include a refusal to maintain weight that is at least 85% of what is expected for one’s age and height, an intense fear of becoming fat or gaining weight, even though one is underweight, missing at least three consecutive menstrual cycles (in postmenarcheal women), and having one’s self-evaluation determined by weight or body size, body image distortion, or denying how serious the low body weight actually is.
Individuals with anorexia may experience a number of medical consequences including, but not limited to: weakening of the bones, severe dehydration, thyroid problems, a decrease in white cell count, which increases the risk of infection, swelling, electrolyte imbalance, severe malnutrition, seizures, arrhythmias, and death, according to MedlinePlus. As an individual starves himself or herself, weight loss occurs from all of the muscles, organs, and tissues in the body, including the brain.
A recent study examined the brains of underweight individuals with anorexia versus those of normal-weight women. The authors wanted to determine if short-term treatment with the goal of weight restoration would reverse the loss of brain mass in those suffering from this eating disorder. The research team was led by Christina Roberto, MS, MPhil at Yale University. The study took place at the Columbia University Center for Eating Disorders.
The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to take pictures of the brain of 32 female adult inpatients who were suffering from anorexia and 21 healthy women with normal weights and no psychiatric illnesses. The MRIs revealed that women who were in a state of self-starvation had less gray matter brain volume than the healthy women with normal weights. They also discovered that individuals who had suffered from anorexia the longest had the most reduced brain matter when they were underweight.
The researchers also found that the gray matter brain volume began to increase over the course of several weeks when women with anorexia received treatment as inpatients in a specialized eating disorders unit where they gained to reach normal weights. Roberto asserts that, “This suggests that the reductions in brain matter volume that results from starvation can be reversed with appropriate treatment aimed at weight restoration.”
Roberto admits that the clinical implications of these findings are not yet fully known. She said, “It is unclear how brain volume deficits impact brain functioning, which specific regions of the brain are most affected, or if these deficits are linked to how patients respond to treatment.” Perhaps future research will help clarify the answers to these questions and shed light on the clinical significance of these findings.
This recent research was published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders. If you would like to learn more about anorexia nervosa, you may visit MedlinePlus’ page on the topic.
MedlinePlus: Anorexia Nervosa:
PsychCentral: Brain Changes with Anorexia Can Be Reversed:
American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV-TR, 2000.