Eating disorders may change how the brain works, CU Anschutz researchers find

AURORA, Colo. — People with anorexia and bulimia nervosa have neurological differences that can override the urge to eat, according to scientists at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

Researchers found their neuropathways travel in opposite directions, effectively reversing the normal patterns of appetite stimulation.

The researchers used brain scans to compare how 26 healthy women and 26 women with anorexia or bulimia nervosa reacted to tasting a sugary solution, according to a statement released to the media.

The study points out that humans are programmed at birth to like sweet tastes, but people with eating disorders begin to avoid eating sweets for fear of gaining weight.

“This behavior could eventually alter the brain circuits governing appetite and food intake,” researchers stated in the press release.

They found people with the eating disorders had “widespread alterations” in the structure of certain brain pathways in the white matter. White matter coordinates communication between different parts of the brain and suppress the drive to eat.

“The appetite region of the brain should drive you off your chair to get something to eat,” said Guido Frank, lead author of the study and associate professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “But in patients with anorexia or bulimia nervosa that is not the case.”

Researchers said they also found major differences in the function of the hypothalamus, a brain region that regulates appetite.

“In the groups with an eating disorder, the pathways to the hypothalamus were significantly weaker and the direction of information went in the opposite direction,” researchers stated. “As a result, their brain may be able to override the hypothalamus and fend off the signals to eat.”

“In the clinical world we call this ‘mind over matter,'” said Frank. “Now we have physiological evidence to back up that idea.”

The study was published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.