Researchers Find Links in Brain to Eating Disorders

New research is giving doctors insight into the minds of patients with anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder that causes people to obsess about weight and what they eat.

Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center say 50 percent of women who get treatment for anorexia relapse at some point in their lives.

"One of the key things is we lose so many patients who go into treatment programs," said Dr. Carrie McAdams, an assistant professor of psychiatry at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Her current research examines the connections between biological and psychological aspects of eating disorders using functional neuroimaging.

Women currently with anorexia nervosa view images of themselves differently, but this is normalized for the women in long-term weight recovery.

McAdams used MRI technology to discover that women who were successfully treated for anorexia used a different part of the brain for positive thoughts about themselves.

"The really exciting part of the data was that the people who were in long-term weight recovery actually engaged an entire different network part of the brain to answer these questions about themselves. So they were missing the same area that our anorexia patients were, but they had somehow learned to engage another set of regions," McAdams said.

She says it gives researchers a treatment target as the data suggests that changes in the way one thinks about oneself is important for recovery.

"One of the techniques that is being explored [is] real-time MRI, so you put someone in a scanner and you teach them to activate these regions. There is also a technique called reverse trans-cranial magnetic stimulation, which specifically stimulates circuits in the brain. It's used for treatment-resistant depression primarily, but we might be able to target a different circuit for eating disorders," McAdams said.

Jennifer Passanante sought treatment at the Eating Disorder Clinic for anorexia and says the research is beneficial.

"I think a lot of folks, myself in particular, had this mentality of, 'I just need to eat, I just need to get over it,' but there is so much more behind it. There are scientific reasons why people are struggling with this. To have the research done and out there is really important and powerful," Passanante said.

McAdams treats patients at the Eating Disorder Clinic at Texas Health Dallas, the only adult inpatient treatment center in North Texas.

They offer inpatient, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient and aftercare programs.

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