New study links abnormal brain function to severe forms of anorexia and body dysmorphic disorder

A new study has shown that the severity of anorexia and BDD is dictated by certain types of brain abnormalities, thereby debunking the idea that body image disorders are lifestyle choices made voluntarily

Myupchar September 09, 2020 21:10:33 IST
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New study links abnormal brain function to severe forms of anorexia and body dysmorphic disorder

A person with body dysmorphia or BDD on the other hand usually has an obsession with self-perceived body flaws instead of weight. Image courtesy: Jannis Lucas/Unsplash

Body image issues can often lead to mental health disorders of various types, and when severe, these can lead to chronic diseases, debilitating health conditions and can even cause death.

Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are probably the most well-known types of eating disorders that fall under the category of mental health issues. But there are others, like body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), which can also show up in many people as well.

A common misconception that people have about eating disorders or mental health issues related to body image like these is that they are a lifestyle choice, and people — especially women — engage in them voluntarily.

A new study published in the journal Brain Imaging and Behavior indicates that these mental health disorders have a neurological link and their severity is dictated by certain types of brain abnormalities, thereby reinforcing the idea that disorders like anorexia and BDD are unlikely to be lifestyle choices that one makes voluntarily.

A study in brain function and body image disorders

The study included 64 unmedicated women, 20 of whom had weight-restored anorexia, 23 had BDD, and 21 were healthy controls or women without any eating disorders. The participants were shown images of male and female bodies, and their brain activation, as well as connectivity in visual and parietal brain networks, were measured through a functional MRI to investigate the relationships between their clinical symptoms and evaluation of people’s appearance.

It was found that while viewing the images of unhealthy individuals, the brain activity and connectivity signals of people with anorexia or BDD showed abnormalities. The abnormalities in connectivity were similar between both these groups, while the activity abnormalities were different. The more severe the eating disorder, the more pronounced were the abnormalities in brain function. These study results can help in further understanding the distinct and shared pathophysiologies of these two eating disorders, and can also aid in the creation of better treatment methods.

Identifying anorexia and BDD

While the results of this study and many others of this kind can help people with eating disorders overcome their diseases, an even bigger issue is the lack of awareness about these disorders. Apart from believing that eating disorders are choices people make, many also believe that there is not much of a difference between the different eating disorders. But each eating disorder presents with its own set of symptoms just like most mental health disorders do.

For example, people with anorexia have a distorted body image and intense fear of weight gain. This leads them to eat very little and become dangerously underweight. The following are its main symptoms according to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS):

  • Missing, skipping meals or eating too little
  • Lying about what you’ve eaten or how much you weigh
  • Taking medicines or other substances to reduce hunger
  • Exercising excessively to lose weight, to the extent of self-harming or collapsing
  • An overwhelming fear of gaining weight
  • Seeing losing drastic weight as a good thing
  • Believing you are fat when you are at a healthy weight or underweight

A person with body dysmorphia or BDD on the other hand usually has an obsession with self-perceived body flaws instead of weight. In this sense, BDD is not purely an eating disorder, but also has elements of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The NHS lists the following as symptoms of BDD:

  • Worrying a lot about a specific area of your body
  • Spending a lot of time comparing your looks with those of others
  • Looking too much at mirrors or avoiding them altogether
  • Taking too much effort to conceal self-perceived flaws
  • Making extreme changes to your diet or lifestyle to fix self-perceived flaws
  • Picking at your skin to change it (extreme symptom)

Since the presentations of these disorders are so dissimilar, their treatment is likely to differ too. Ultimately, what you need to know is that these disorders have a deep impact on your health, and these are mental health issues that should not be ignored or sidelined. Consulting a psychiatrist or psychologist to treat such disorders sooner rather than later is of vital importance.

For more information, read our article on Anorexia nervosa.

Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health.

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