Recovery from the eating disorder anorexia nervosa may be complicated by the brain’s response to deeply engrained habits, according to a new study from the New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia University Medical Center.
Anorexia nervosa, also known simply as anorexia, is a serious medical condition that can be life-threatening. People are diagnosed with anorexia when their weight is at least 15 percent below their normal or ideal weight.
Anorexia is characterized by excessive weight loss which may include bingeing and purging or self-starvation. People with anorexia often refuse food even when they are hungry, and have an intense fear of becoming fat. Many see themselves as fat, even when they are very thin.
Anorexia is more common in women than in men. While the exact cause of the condition is not known, researchers believe it is a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors.
Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. It is considered to be very difficult to treat. Patients with anorexia typically do not respond to treatments commonly used with success for other eating disorders, such as psychiatric medications and talk therapy.
The new research from Columbia University may help explain why the pattern of anorexia is so difficult to break, even for patients who want to recover and eat more normally.
The small research study compared the brain activity of 21 women with anorexia and 21 healthy women while they made decisions about what foods they wanted to eat. Researchers used brain scanning technology to determine which portions of the brain were active in the decision-making process.
The researchers correctly anticipated that a portion of the brain’s reward center known as the ventral striatum would be active in both groups of women.
The brain scans revealed that the women with anorexia also had increased brain activity in the dorsal striatum which is an area of the brain involved in habitual behavior.