Women suffering from body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) - a mental illness characterized by debilitating misperceptions that one appears disfigured and ugly - appear to process visual information abnormally, even when looking at inanimate objects, say UCLA scientists. The findings appears in Psychological Medicine.
In the study, UCLA's Jamie Feusner found that patients with the disorder have less brain activity when processing holistic visual elements that provide the "big picture," regardless of whether that picture is a face or an object. "This is an important step to figuring out what's going wrong in the brains of people with BDD so we can develop treatments to change their perceptions of themselves," said Feusner.
BDD sufferers (an estimated 2 percent of the population) tend to fixate on minute details, such as a single blemish or a slight crook to the nose, rather than viewing their face as a whole. They think obsessively about their appearance and engage in repetitive, time-consuming behaviors, such as checking their appearance in the mirror. Many are too embarrassed to leave the house, some have repeated and unnecessary plastic surgeries, and still others can become suicidal.
The study compared 14 BDD patients with 14 healthy controls using MRI brain scans. The subjects viewed digital photographs of houses that were either unaltered or altered in ways to parse out different elements of visual processing. One altered set of images included very fine details, such as the shingles on the roof. The other altered images had very little detail and just showed things "holistically," such as the general shape of the house and the doors and windows.
Feusner found that the BDD patients had abnormal brain activation patterns when viewing pictures of the less-detailed houses: the regions of their brains that process these visual elements showed less activation than the healthy controls. In addition, the more severe their BDD symptoms, the lower the brain activity in the areas responsible for processing the image holistically.
"The study suggests that BDD patients have general abnormalities in visual processing," Feusner explained. "But we haven't yet determined whether abnormal visual processing contributes as a cause to developing BDD or is the effect of having BDD. So it's the chicken-or-the-egg phenomenon.
Thirty percent of people with BDD also suffer from eating disorders, which are also linked to having a distorted self-image. Feusner is now enrolling anorexia nervosa patients to study whether they have abnormalities in the way they process visual information.
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Source: University of California - Los Angeles