Anorexia May Be Caused By Fetal Brain Abnormality


In yet another important step for the treatment of eating disorders, scientists now believe they’ve pinpointed a brain abnormality that develops in the womb that contributes to the development of anorexia nervosa later in life.

Denis Campbell of the Guardian brings us the good news: a study set to be released at the Institute of Education in London later this week proposes that people who struggle with anorexia may be predisposed to do so due to an abnormal brain development in the womb. “Our research shows that certain kids’ brains develop in such a way that makes them more vulnerable to the more commonly-known risk factors for eating disorders, such as the size-zero debate, media representations of very skinny women and bad parents,” says Ian Frampton, who helped to lead the study.

In other words, while all of us are exposed to societal and media pressures to lose weight and stay thin, women whose brains developed a bit differently in the womb are more likely to internalize these pressures in the form of an eating disorder. Frampton notes that the brain abnormality is not the result of “poor maternal diet or environmental factors, such as widespread use of chemicals,” but rather of the same type of “imperfect wiring” that causes such disorders as ADHD and dyslexia.

The reason this is such a significant discovery is that it opens up the doors to a whole new means of treating anorexia: “”These findings could help us to understand this beguiling disease that we don’t know how to treat,” Frampton notes, “Arguments that social factors such as girls feeling under pressure to lose weight in order to look like high-profile women in the media contain logical flaws because almost everyone is exposed to them, yet only a small percentage of young people get anorexia.Those things are important but there must be other factors, involving genetics and science, that make some young people much more vulnerable than others.”

On a personal note, this is incredibly encouraging news: too often, the treatment of anorexia gets boiled down to “if you just eat, you’ll be fine” by those who do not understand the true nature of the illness. When I was hospitalized, in 2003, the doctors at my hospital were pursuing the possibility of a genetic cause for the illness: some of us may be born predisposed to eating disorders, and for whatever reason, a catalyst sets the illness off, much like an alcoholic does not realize they are an alcoholic until they take their first drink…and can’t stop drinking.

The notion that the illness is, in fact, a brain abnormality as opposed to, as the public often feels, a series of bad choices leading to bad health, is encouraging in that it opens the door to more research, better methods of treatment, and even the possibility that anorexia could be treated with specific meds, much like ADD is treated with Adderall or Ritalin.

And also, as Susan Ringwood of Beat, an ED charity, tells the Guardian: “And it will help parents understand that they aren’t to blame. Parents always blame themselves when their child develops an eating disorder. But what we are learning more and more from research in this area is that some people are very vulnerable to anorexia and that is down to genetic factors and brain chemistry, and not them trying to look like celebrity models or suffering a major traumatic event early in their lives.” Amen.

For those of us who struggle/struggled with eating disorders, news like this is not only encouragement that the scientific community is taking the illness seriously, but hope that for future generations of both men and women, the illness can be stopped before it takes over.

Anorexia Risk ‘Could Be Predicted’ [Guardian]

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