Even after a year of maintaining a normal body weight, young women who recovered from anorexia nervosa still showed vastly different patterns of brain activity compared to similar women without the eating disorder, University of Pittsburgh psychiatrist Walter H. Kaye reports in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Kaye and his colleagues studied 13 women who had recovered from anorexia, maintaining a normal weight and regular menstrual cycles for at least one year, and 13 healthy women in a control group. The women's brain activity was then monitored during specially designed game play with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
"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 co-researcher Angela Wagner. "For anorexics, then, perhaps is it difficult to appreciate immediate pleasure if it does not feel much different from a negative experience."
Interestingly, the caudate regions of the brains of formerly anorexic women were more active than those of healthy controls, suggesting that women with a history of anorexia were more focused on the consequences of their choices. Kaye noted that anorexics "tend to worry about the future" and "doing things right."
"There are some positive aspects to this kind of temperament," he said. "Paying attention to detail and making sure things are done as correctly as possible are constructive traits in careers such as medicine or engineering." Carried to extremes, however, such obsessive thinking can also be harmful, he explained.
Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder and Kaye believes that understanding of these basic brain differences could influence future development of drugs and other treatments for anorexia.
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Source: University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences