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Brain Stimulation May Help People with Eating Disorders

Tim Boyer's picture
rTMS used for under and over-eating

Eating disorders affect a significant portion of the world with women especially susceptible to the ill-health effects of said medical condition. However, new research shows that simple brain stimulation may be of help.


According to new research from Kings College in London, many women suffer from the eating disorder anorexia nervosa which induces strong feelings of feeling fat and an almost uncontrollable urge to severely restrict their food intake―a condition in which up to 20 percent of people with anorexia die prematurely. Due to the fact that anorexia nervosa qualifies as a condition of mental illness, it raises the possibility that some treatments used for other neurological conditions―such as depression―may also be applicable toward treating this particular eating disorder.

“Anorexia nervosa is thought to affect up to 4 per cent of women in their life-time. With increasing illness duration, anorexia becomes entrenched in the brain and increasingly difficult to treat. Our preliminary findings support the potential of novel brain-directed treatments for anorexia, which are desperately needed,” stated Kings College researcher Professor Ulrike Schmidt.

One such brain-directed treatment that has been recognized as moderately effective is that of repetitive transcranial stimulation (rTMS). Repetitive transcranial stimulation involves placing an electromagnetic coil against the scalp near your forehead and painlessly delivering magnetic pulses that stimulates nerve cells in the region of the brain involved in mood control and depression. The treatment is described as feeling like a gentle tapping sensation on the side of the head.

You Tube Video about Repetitive Transcranial Stimulation Study

Repetitive transcranial stimulation has been used with some success to treat and reduce addictive behaviors and craving for nicotine, alcohol and cocaine, as well as suppress food cravings in patients suffering from the opposite of anorexia nervosa―bulimia nervosa (BN).

In a recent study published in the open-access journal PLOS One, researchers from Kings College put repetitive transdermal stimulation to the test by enlisting the help of 49 people diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.

According to the Kings College news release:

“In the study, 49 people completed food exposure and decision-making tasks, both before and after a session of either real or placebo rTMS. Symptoms of anorexia were measured immediately prior to and following rTMS, as well as 20 minutes and 24 hours after the session.

The food exposure task sought to provoke anorexia symptoms by asking participants to watch a two-minute film of people eating appetising food, such as chocolate and crisps, while the same items were in front of them. They then had to rate the perceived smell, taste, appearance and urge to eat these foods.”

What the researchers found was that even as little as one treatment with repetitive transcranial stimulation led to some promising results.

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‘We found that one session of rTMS reduced the urge to restrict food intake, levels of feeling full and levels of feeling fat, as well as encouraging more prudent decision-making. Taken together, these findings suggest that brain stimulation may reduce symptoms of anorexia by improving cognitive control over compulsive features of the disorder,’ stated the study’s first author Dr. Jessica McClelland, a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience in King’s College.

The participants were also given a decision-making task in which they had to choose whether to take a small sum of money immediately, or later on―a week, month, year or two years—as a greater sum.

What resulted was that those study participants who received the repetitive transcranial stimulation showed a tendency for more prudent decision-making by delaying immediate gratification and choosing the more distant monetary reward.

Based on their promising results, the researchers plan on expanding their trial with a larger scale study that will look at determining whether there are long-term benefits for anorexia nervosa patients treated with multiple sessions of repetitive transcranial stimulation therapy.

For more on repetitive transcranial stimulation therapy, here are two select articles:

Free Sources of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) for the Underinsured

Hope For Adults With 'Lazy Eye' Disorder


Kings College, London “Brain stimulation may reduce anorexia symptoms

A Randomised Controlled Trial of Neuronavigated Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS) in Anorexia Nervosa” PLOS One, Published: March 23, 2016; Jessica McClelland et al.

Image from YouTube video of research