Women who’ve had anorexia nervosa have markedly different brain activity patterns than those who’ve never had the eating disorder, a new study suggests.
A team at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine used functional MRI to monitor brain activity in 13 young women who’d recovered from anorexia — defined as maintaining a normal body weight and regular menstrual cycles for at least one year. They then compared them to 13 women who had never had anorexia.
The women’s brains were scanned while they played a guessing game on a computer. Correct answers yielded a $2 reward, while incorrect guesses resulted in the loss of $1.
“During the game, brain regions lit up in different ways for women who formerly had anorexia compared to healthy controls,” study first author Dr. Angela Wagner said in a prepared statement. “While the brain region for emotional responses showed strong differences for winning and losing in healthy women, women with a past history of anorexia showed little difference between winning and losing. For anorexics, then, perhaps it is difficult to appreciate immediate pleasure if it does not feel much different from a negative experience.”
The results of this study, published in the December issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, suggest that the women with a history of anorexia were more focused on the consequences of their choices during the guessing game.
This kind of research can provide new clues about why people with anorexia are able to deny themselves food and other immediately rewarding pleasures, and improve understanding of why some women (typically worriers and perfectionists in childhood) are at greater risk for the eating disorder.