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Brain Circuit Abnormalities May Underlie Bulimia in Women

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Rachel Marsh, Ph.D., a 2007 NARSAD Young Investigator, and colleagues at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, have found that women with bulimia nervosa appear to respond more impulsively during psychological testing than those without eating disorders, and their brain scans show differences in areas responsible for regulating behavior.

The study, conducted with NARSAD support, was reported in the January issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

Bulimia nervosa often begins in the adolescent or young adult years. It affects girls and women primarily and is characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating followed by self-induced vomiting or other compensatory behavior to avoid weight gain. These episodes of binge eating are associated with a severe sense of loss of control.

As explained in the report, certain pathways between nerve cells known as frontostriatal circuits help individuals control their voluntary behaviors. These functions are tested during the Simon Spatial Incompatibility task, in which participants must indicate the direction an arrow is pointing regardless of where it appears on a screen. The task is easier when the arrow direction matches the side of the screen. It is more difficult when, for instance, an arrow that points leftward appears on the right side of the screen. Ignoring the side of the screen to focus on the arrow direction requires regulating behavior by fighting the tendency to respond automatically and resolving conflicting messages.

Dr. Marsh and her team compared the performance of 20 women with bulimia nervosa with that of 20 healthy controls, who performed the task while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

“Patients with bulimia nervosa exhibited greater impulsivity than did control participants, responding faster and making more errors on conflict trials [where the arrow direction and location did not match] that required self-regulatory control to respond correctly,” the authors write.

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