The Neural Correlates of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders (EDs) are classified as mental illnesses by the DSM-IV-TR. The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistics Manual) is published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). The better known of these diseases are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating.

Despite efforts to circumvent them, some Websites actually encourage, or at least give tips and tricks to, individuals trying to lose weight in unhealthy fashions. These sites, called 'pro-ana' for anorexia, and 'pro-mia' for bulimia, offer advice and images designed to inspire one to keep one's BMI (Body Mass Index) alarmingly low, referred to as 'thinspiration". To be fair, many post a disclaimer stating that the 'lifestyle' is hard, dangerous and that they discourage anyone from adopting it, having themselves little choice in the matter.

Many believe that the world of fashion is, at least in part, the cause for disordered eating. Following the tragic deaths of several models due to starvation and related complications, some fashion shows have introduced a minimum BMI for models wishing to participate.

eating disoders

Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty" : In trying to elucidate eating disorders, the media has often been blamed for upholding an unattainable thin ideal. Perhaps as a response, Dove, the famous personal care brand, has designed a Campaing for Real Beauty, which promotes a broader understanding of attractiveness.

On the academic side, the neural correlates of EDs have been examined. For instance, in comparing brain function of patients with anorexia and bulimia nervosa and healthy controls, Vocks et al. (2010) carried out an fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) study, in which they asked women to look at photographs of themselves and others in a bikini. The authors found that the subjects with both EDs showed reduced cerebral activity in the inferior parietal lobule while watching their own bodies as compared to healthy controls. The finding was deemed related to body-related avoidance behavior.

Further, Riva (2010) suggests that EDs may be due to an allocentric representation locked in long-term memory. The situation may be fostered by the medial temporal lobe, more specifically the connection between the hippocampal complex and the amygdala.

In addition, Schmidt and colleagues (2010) cite several previous works, which all demonstrate that cognitive, emotional and reward processing are impaired in individuals suffering from the anorexia nervosa condition. The writers affirm that translational research could improve treatment of the diseases, which has been documented as having a high dropout rate in adult clinical populations. Steinglass & Walsh (2006) similarly report that the relapse rate is high, and maladaptive behaviors (such as obsessions with food, calorie counting and weight) remain difficult to alter.