Anorexia is a very serious mental health problem that has a wide range of dangerous consequences for anyone for suffers from it. Traditionally it has proved exceptionally difficult to treat, but now it seems that neuroscience may be getting closer to offering a solution to the problem. Recently there has been considerable insight into the condition, which may help doctors find a way to overcome it in individuals. To understand how it might be defeated we need to first understand what the condition is.

There is a perception that anorexia is simply a mental health issue that causes people to become very skinny. Unfortunately the truth is much darker than simply an illness that produces weight loss. Anorexia is a disease in a very real sense of the word and it can cause enormous problems through the course of someone’s life if it is allowed to continue untreated.

It’s hard to know the real number, but it’s thought that somewhere between 1 and 4 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder – anorexia nervosa is by far the most common. Girls and young women are most likely to suffer from the condition but it can affect anyone, and there has been a recent increase in the number of boys and men reportedly suffering. It is not especially well understood, but sufferers usually fear weight gain and have a distorted image of their own body.

It is clear that anorexia is a very serious condition as it enables people to overcome a human survival instinct: the desire for food. People with anorexia typically go out of their way to avoid meals whenever possible and eat very little when they have no option but to eat. It is also characterised by sufferers forcing themselves to vomit to remove any food for their stomach.

It has long been assumed the underlying issue that caused the number of relapses in the condition was the fact that patients could not get beyond their body image. But a new study published in Nature Neuroscience has revealed that differing brain activity could be the reason that anorexia sufferers find it so hard to recover from the condition.

In the study, the team asked 21 newly hospitalised anorexia patients to rate a range of foods on their healthiness and taste. A foodstuff was then selected which was considered to be neutral (with middling scores for both healthiness and taste).

The patients were then offered a choice, firstly between the neutral food and one that was considered healthy but not tasty (carrots), and then between the neutral food and one that was considered tasty but not healthy (chocolate cake). As you might expect, the patients were generally more likely to choose the healthier option – but more surprising were the findings from the brain scans that were taken when the patients were making their choices.

It seems that when subjects without eating disorders were offered the choice, they would consider what to eat based on criteria such as how hungry they are and whether they liked the food. The brain imaging confirmed this to be the case. However, people with anorexia saw increased activity in a part of the brain that deals with habits.

This could indicate why the condition is so hard to treat – sufferers are having to fight against their own subconscious habits. Even those who are desperate to no longer have anorexia make decisions about food by habit rather than by consciously deciding what they will eat. Once they have begun to struggle with the illness it becomes ingrained in their mind and the decision making literally shifts to a different part of the brain.   

The report concluded that anorexia can only be overcome if routines are changed. If sufferers make a recovery in hospital but then return to their lives with the same routines, they are highly likely to fall into the same traps that led them to suffer with the condition in the first place. It is thought that changing patterns of behaviour such as eating somewhere different or using alternative cutlery could be enough to switch people out of a habitual mind-set. If the main aim of recovery is ingrain new healthy habits, this could lead to lasting success.

The more we can learn about the brains of anorexia sufferers, the more likely we are to be able to come up with a solution that works for everyone who faces this condition. Neuroscience has a huge role to play in defeating anorexia.  

Article provided by Mike James, an independent content writer in the health industry – working alongside London based neuroscience specialists Think Change Consulting, who were consulted over the information in this post.