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Brain Size May Predict Anorexia Risk - 10 Warning Signs

Teresa Tanoos's picture
The size of your brain may predict your risk for developing anorexia

The size of our brains could predict the risk of developing an eating disorder, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Researchers involved in the study found that having a larger brain may explain why those who have anorexia can starve themselves; thus, providing a possible way to predict the onset of the eating disorder.

For the study, researchers from the School of Medicine at the University of Colorado studied 19 adolescent girls with anorexia nervosa, as well as a control group of 22 adolescent girls without the disorder.

They used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at the brain size of the participants, with the results showing that the adolescent females with anorexia had larger brains than the control group.

Specifically, the girls with anorexia had bigger left orbitofrontal, right insular, and bilateral temporal cortex gray matter, compared with the girls who did not have the eating disorder.

The orbitofrontal cortex is a region of the brain that tells us to stop eating, whereas the insula is an area of the brain that becomes activated when we taste food.

As part of the study, the research team also studied adults who have anorexia, and compared them with control group of adults who did not have the disorder. Consistent with the findings in the anorexic adolescent girls, the orbitofrontal cortex and insula volumes were also bigger in the anorexic adults.

Because the orbitofrontal cortex communicates a sense of fullness after we eat, the researchers say that having a larger volume in this part of the brain could indicate that someone is at risk for developing an eating disorder.

Being able to detect eating disorders by brain size could also encourage those with them to stop before eating too much food, a problem anorexics struggle with, which explains why they often go to great lengths to avoid food and starve themselves after an eating binge.

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"The negative correlation between taste pleasantness and orbitofrontal cortex volume in individuals with anorexia nervosa could contribute to food avoidance in this disorder," say the study authors.

The researchers point out that the right insula is also responsible for our perception of body image, so having this part of the brain enlarged in anorexics may be the reason why they “see” themselves as fat despite the fact that they are usually grossly underweight.

"While eating disorders are often triggered by the environment, there are most likely biological mechanisms that have to come together for an individual to develop an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa," explains Guido Frank, assistant professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of Colorado.

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), Anorexia nervosa is characterized by emaciation, a relentless pursuit of thinness and unwillingness to maintain a normal or healthy weight, a distortion of body image and intense fear of gaining weight, a lack of menstruation among girls and women, and extremely disturbed eating behavior.

Some people with anorexia lose weight by dieting and exercising excessively; others lose weight by self-induced vomiting, or misusing laxatives, diuretics or enemas.

Eating, food and weight control become obsessions. Anorexics typically weigh themselves repeatedly, carefully controlling food portions and eating only very small amounts of certain foods.

Some with anorexia recover with treatment after only one episode, while others get well, but suffer relapses. Still others have a more chronic form of anorexia, which causes their health to deteriorate, sometimes to the point of having their body and organs shut down, resulting in death.

Ten Warning Signs of Anorexia:

1. Deliberate self-starvation with weight loss
2. Intense, persistent fear of gaining weight
3. Refusal to eat or highly restrictive eating
4. Continuous dieting
5. Excessive facial/body hair because of inadequate protein in the diet
6. Compulsive exercise
7. Abnormal weight loss
8. Sensitivity to cold
9. Absent or irregular menstruation
10. Hair loss

Recent studies have also linked anorexia to other conditions. Research from the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University in the UK, revealed that females with anorexia may have some of the traits observed in people with autism.

1. Localized brain volume and white matter integrity alterations in adolescent anorexia nervosa published in the The Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 22 July 2013.
2. National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD)