(ORDO NEWS) — Anorexia nervosa, a devastating and potentially fatal eating disorder, takes its toll on the body. However, the new study also highlights the impact of lack of adequate nutrition on the brain, severely reducing critical indicators of brain structure and health.
Based on brain scans of 1,648 women (685 with anorexia nervosa) from 22 different regions, the researchers found decreases in cortical thickness, subcortical volumes, and cortical surface area in people with anorexia. In fact, the brain seems to shrink.
In terms of sample size, this is the largest study done to date to explore the relationship between eating disorder and gray matter – and it shows how important it is to treat this condition as early as possible.
“For this study, we have been working intensively for several years with research groups around the world,” says psychologist Esther Walton from the University of Bath in the UK.
“Being able to combine thousands of brain scans of people with anorexia has allowed us to study the brain changes that may characterize this disorder in much greater detail.”
The contractions in brain size and shape shown here are two to four times greater than contractions caused by other psychological conditions such as depression, ADHD and OCD, the researchers say.
What causes these reductions is beyond the scope of this study, but the team behind it suggests that the decline in body mass index (BMI) and the amount of available nutrients likely have something to do with it.
However, there are signs of hope in the study: Brain scans have shown that treatment for anorexia, which usually includes cognitive behavioral therapy, could possibly reverse some of these changes in the brain.
“We found that the significant reductions in brain structure that we saw in patients were less noticeable in patients already on the road to recovery,” says Walton.
“This is a good sign because it indicates that these changes may not be permanent. With the right treatment, the brain can recover.”
While scientists aren’t sure what exactly causes anorexia, we know a lot more about its effects. It affects millions of people around the world and is one of the leading causes of death associated with mental health problems.
As new data become available in future studies, scientists will be able to better understand what exactly causes the decrease in brain volume in people with anorexia, as well as some of the neurological mechanisms behind it.
In the meantime, it is clear that the sooner treatment is started, the better. The same methods used here can also be used to measure the effectiveness of a treatment in terms of brain damage.
“The effect of treatments and interventions can now be measured using these new brain maps as a benchmark,” says neurologist Paul Thompson of the University of Southern California.
“This is really a wake-up call that shows the need for early intervention for people with eating disorders.”
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