Anorexic women's brains altered even after recovery: study

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Specific brain changes occur in women who are anorexic, even after they have recovered from the disorder, say researchers.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine studied the differences in brain function between 13 women who had suffered from anorexia and 13 healthy women who had never had the disorder. The recovered anorexics had maintained a healthy weight for one year and had normal menstrual periods.

They wanted to find out why women with the psychiatric condition have a high level of anxiety and whether there is a physical cause for the heightened emotional response.

Their findings are published in the December issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Researchers administered tests to both groups of women.

The first involved guessing whether a hidden number on a playing card (obscured by a flashing question mark on a computer screen) was higher or lower than five. Correct guesses were rewarded with $2 and incorrect guesses resulted in a $1 payout by the participant.

At the same time, MRI images were taken of the participants' brains — focusing specifically on areas associated with emotions and planning.

"During the game, brain regions lit up in different ways for women who formerly had anorexia compared to healthy controls. While the brain region for emotional responses showed strong differences for winning and losing in healthy women, women with a past history of anorexia showed little difference between winning and losing," said Angela Wagner, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the study's lead author.

"For anorexics, then, perhaps is it difficult to appreciate immediate pleasure if it does not feel much different from a negative experience."

The MRIs also revealed that in women who had formerly been anorexic, the regions of the brain that link actions to outcomes were more active than in healthy women, indicating anorexic women were more preoccupied with perfectionism and doing things right, according to the researchers.

"They tended to try and find strategies within the game, and were concerned about making mistakes," said Kaye.

Anorexia is one of several eating disorders that strikes mainly girls or women, although boys or men can also be affected. The disease involves a distorted image of one's body that leads to an obsessive fear of gaining weight, weight loss and malnutrition.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, approximately 0.5 per cent to four per cent of women will develop anorexia nervosa during their lifetimes.

source: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation,