Changes in the Brain Resulting from Anorexia

 It has been called the “eating disordered brain”, but what does that mean exactly?

 Below are some examples of studies and research conducted with patients suffering from anorexia and how the disease affects their brain functioning, brain weight, behaviors, the ability to experience pleasure, sleep problems and can even result in death.

*One study, confirmed that anorexic patients cling to familiar behavioral responses more frequently than healthy subjects, thus suppressing alternative behavior. Brain images also showed that in patients with anorexia compared with healthy subjects, a certain network pathway between the cortex and the diencephalon is less activated.

This network pathway plays a decisive role in initiating and controlling actions under rapidly changing environmental demands. This makes decreases one’s ability to plan, concentrate, have motivation, and be able to make quick decisions needed in cases such as driving.

*Another study measured brain volume deficits among underweight patients with the illness to evaluate if the decline is reversible thought short-term weight restoration. The scans indicated that when the women with anorexia nervosa were in a state of starvation they had less grey matter brain volume compared to the healthy women. Those who had the illness the longest had the greatest reductions in brain volume when underweight.

Grey matter called the caudate nucleus, is a network of closely packed neuron cell bodies of the brain. The grey matter includes regions of the brain involved in muscle control, sensory perceptions, such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions and speech, which is an important nerve center for controlling movement and cognitive processing.

*Persistent brain abnormalities in women with anorexia, even in those recovered (maintaining a healthy weight for a period of a year) show a high relapse rate for this disorder. According to a study at the University of Pittsburg and published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, anorexics show a decreased ability to differentiate between winning and losing, not fully experiencing immediate pleasure and possibly not appreciating the positive feelings associated with food.

*In another instance, people with anorexia performed significantly worse on tasks measuring attention, visuo-spatial ability and memory. Tasks that measured mental flexibility and the ability to learn new things, showed impairment in anorexics. In addition, when assessing the brain through MRIs a most anorexics had enlarged lateral ventricles and dilated sulci. Enlarged lateral ventricles could result in less time spent during stage 4 sleep, headaches, shortness of breath.

The fourth stage of sleep is when our muscles and our brains regenerate. This process is necessary to keep us healthy, and to keep our brains functioning normally. If this stage of sleep is shortened or missed completely, the immune system becomes weak and the brain stops functioning as it should. This can cause serious health problems such as experiencing an abnormal mental state and if one experiences a prolonged deprivation of stage 4 sleep, death is a possibility.

So if you think that your anorexic diagnosis only means that you are restricting caloric intake and may feel slightly tired or some other mild symptoms that you have rationalized or disregarded altogether, you can tell from the information above that you are in serious danger if you do not get help and back to a healthy body weight and mindset.

-Dr. J


Some of the information and studies in this blog were from published sources such as neuropsychiatryreviews, psych central, University Hospital Heidelburg, and Internation Journal of Eating Disorders and the US Library Medicine and the NIH.

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