How the Brain Influences Eating Disorders

eating disorder and the brainThe prevalence of eating disorders in western society is growing. Disorders such as anorexia and compulsive overeating are very damaging to both mental and physical health. New studies are beginning to shine some light on how the brains of those with eating disorders react differently to food in comparison to healthy individuals.One does not need to be a genius to know that eating is a vital component to survival. We all consume food every day; although some in healthier manner than others. On the list of important day-to-day activities, the intake of food places just behind breathing and drinking water. To many of us, the processes just outlined are an obvious part of our lives to which we hardly give a second thought.

For some, the act of eating can be fraught with difficulties and dangers. In this I am not referencing the poverty that millions in the world suffer under where the act of nourishment is a daily struggle. While incredibly tragic, such concerns are beyond the scope of this short article. Instead, this piece shall focus on the problem of eating disorders.

An eating disorder can be simply classified as a situation where a person cannot consume food in a healthy manner. This can involve either an extreme limitation in eating leading to malnourishment and dangerously low weight levels (anorexia) or compulsively over-eating to the point of obesity. Eating disorders are very serious business. In fact, among all mental illnesses eating disorders have the highest mortality rate.

The most physically obvious of eating disorders, obesity, is probably the most readily apparent. In the western world, being over-weight or obese is a growing problem. The poster child of this trend must be the United States where over half of the population weigh more than they should. European countries should not relax though, the percentages of over-weight people are increasing on this side of the Atlantic as well. Anorexia and bulimia (the controlling of weight via cycles of binging and purging) can also be deadly and affect both men and women of all ages across our society.

Given the dangers of eating disorders many healthcare professionals and researchers are attempting to discern what exactly causes people to fall into the vicious cycle of unhealthy eating. One recent study compared the brain patterns of anorexics and the obese against lean individuals whose weight and eating habits are classified as healthy. The study led to some fascinating results that could set the tone for further research.

The study utilised MRI scans to investigate how our brains react when presented with images of food. The test subjects were divided into four different groups: anorexics, the obese, people with Prader-Willi syndrome (very obese) and a control group of healthy people. The results of the scans highlighted two major responses. When the anorexic group were shown images of food they displayed markedly decreased responses within the areas of the brain associated with pleasure and reward. The opposite occurred with the over-weight subjects. These groups, when shown pictures of food, had substantially increased responses in the same brain areas regulating reward and pleasure.

These results make it clear that people with eating disorders have brains which react differently to food than a normal, healthy individual. Whether this difference is a result of genetics or a response developed over time is not clear at this moment. Laura Martin, who is part of the team of researchers that conducted these investigations made an important inference regarding these findings. She commented that this data shows, “Consistent activations of reward areas of the brain that are also implicated in studies of addiction.” From this we can begin to see that those people who chronically overeat could literally be addicted to food, although more study is required. Likewise, unlike healthy eaters, anorexics appear to receive little or no pleasure from eating.

This study sheds light onto how people with eating disorders have brain activity that is very different from a healthy eater. Obviously more study is needed not only to understand how and why people react differently to food, but also to determine what can be done to better aid those who do suffer from eating disorders. This importance of this area of study is summed up well by Kyle Simmons of the Laureate Institute, “Knowing which brain regions underlie inferences about food taste and reward is critical if we are going to develop efficacious interventions for obesity and certain eating disorders, both of which are associated with enormous personal and public health costs.”

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