-Written by Erica Robinson, NC A&T SU ‘19
Eating disorders are characterized by a persistent disturbance of eating or eating-related behavior that results in the altered consumption of food and significantly impairs physical health or psychosocial functioning (DSM-V, p.329). Although most studies focus on the psychological aspect of these disorders, few investigates the neurobiology that can contribute to the development of eating disorders (van Elburg & Treasure, 2013).
Neurobiology is defined as the study of living organisms specifically focusing on the nervous system. One of the biggest and most important organs in the nervous system is the brain. The brain is understood to be the coordinating center of sensation and intellectual and nervous activity. What makes the brain so different from any other organ in the body is how it’s wired. Although the brain only contains four lobes, each lobe receives information differently and then responds in numerous different ways to perform one specific task. For that reason, van Elburg & Treasure conducted a review of the literature on neurobiology involved with eating disorders.
Previous studies have reported physical differences existing in the structure of brains affected by eating disorders. People with anorexia nervosa have a decreased amount of gray matter in the regions of the brain that relate to sensation. On the other hand, people with bulimia nervosa have an increased amount of gray matter in the part of the brain that control reward processing. Gray matter is a type of tissue found in the brain that contains nerve cells that help process information (Robertson, 2014). An abundant or scarce amount of gray matter anywhere in the brain can affect a person’s cognitive skills.
In addition to structure, the brains of people with eating disorders function differently. One region of the brain that is most studied regarding people with eating disorders is the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for emotions, survival instincts (fight or flight), and memory. In a person dealing with anorexia nervosa, the amygdala becomes over active when stimulated by the visual of food. This finding suggests a greater fear response. Another portion of the brain that is connected to eating disorders are the dopamine receptors. Dopamine is a type of chemical naturally found in the body that helps regulate emotional response and control the brain reward and pleasure centers. Interestingly, dopamine receptors activity is reduced in bulimia nervosa as well as low level of dopamine released.
With the ability to control a person’s emotions, memory, and cognitive skills as well as their food intake and metabolism, the biology behind how a person’s brain can be useful information to treat someone with eating disorders. Recent studies investigate the effects of drug related treatments to manipulate chemicals levels in people with eating disorders. Another method of treatment is rewiring current circuits involved in reward and mood regulation. Although these forms of treatments are interesting, these finding are inconclusive and suggests further research.
In conclusion, this review highlights the neurobiological characteristics of eating disorder that often aren’t recognized in other studies. Also, this review poses new ideas for treatment based on the biological aspects of eating disorders instead of using a psychological approach. Having more information found about the causes of eating disorders can help contribute to more forms of treatments.
van Elburg, A., & Treasure, J. (2013). Advances in the neurobiology of eating disorders. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 26(6), 556-561.
Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. (2013). Washington, Londres: American Psychiatric Association.
Robertson, B. S. (2014, November 05). What is Grey Matter? Retrieved July, 2017, from http://www.news-medical.net/health/What-is-Grey-Matter.aspx