Bulimia May Lower the Brain’s Reward System

Bulimia nervosa is an eating and food issue that affects millions of people, particularly women, each year. It is characterized with binge eating and radical weight loss behaviors that include extensive use of laxatives, extreme exercise or repeated self-induced vomiting. People who suffer with bulimia often do so for years and the physical effects on their bodies can be devastating. But a new study may provide insight into why women with bulimia continue their behaviors, regardless of how they are rewarded. The study, conducted by Dr. Guido Frank, examined the brain activity in women who were healthy and compared it to the brain activity of women with bulimia. The activity levels were monitored as each group of women was asked to complete a task that ended in a reward that would release dopamine, a chemical that is responsible for motivation and learning.

The researchers discovered that the women with bulimia displayed less brain activity in the area that was associated with reward. Additionally, their decreased response was directly linked to how often they had episodes of binging and purging. The researchers believe that these findings clearly show a link between the reward system of the brain and the role of dopamine in women with bulimia. They also theorize that the bulimic behaviors are a predictor of the reward system and they do not know if this is reversible with recovery. Lastly, the researchers are considering whether or not a dopamine medication designed to address this region of the brain would be a viable treatment option for bulimia. “This is the first study that suggests that brain dopamine-related reward circuitry, pathways that modulate our drive to eat, may have a role in bulimia nervosa,” says Frank. “That suggests that the eating disorder behavior directly affects brain function. These findings are important since the brain dopamine neurotransmitter system could be an important treatment target for bulimia nervosa,” said Frank.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

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  • William H. Redmond

    July 17th, 2011 at 4:30 PM

    I thought that bulimics felt good about purging and experienced a sense of reward. Apparently if so this isn’t showing up in the brain as a dopamine release. Does that mean that sense of reward is psychological rather than chemical?

  • Richard Feeser

    July 17th, 2011 at 4:32 PM

    It is an interesting hypothesis to say the least. I wonder however if this is a chicken and egg scenario. Does the reduced brain activity generate the desire for the sufferer to binge and purge or does the person initially have this trait and then it is manifested in binging and purging.

    Very very interesting study and I can’t wait to read more on the prospect and the treatments that can come from this study. Hopefully it will lead to new ways to treat people with this terrible disease.

  • J.G.R.

    July 17th, 2011 at 8:25 PM

    @William: I think you’re on the right track there, William. If that’s the case then I’m wondering whether the suggested treatment with dopamine dosage would do any good at all since it’s not a chemical issue. I guess that’s what they are attempting to figure out!

  • GARY

    July 18th, 2011 at 1:39 PM

    Well I think its basic adaptability of d humans at work here-If you do something for long enough you get adjusted to it n will continue doing it,while even supressing d reward system that is in question here.What do ya’all think?

  • Violet S.

    July 18th, 2011 at 8:26 PM

    @William H. Redmond–I feel the researchers are coming at it from a different angle, William, and saying the lack of the chemical is at the root of their bulimic actions. And I quote:

    “That suggests that the eating disorder behavior directly affects brain function. These findings are important since the brain dopamine neurotransmitter system could be an important treatment target for bulimia nervosa,” said Frank.

  • georgia

    July 19th, 2011 at 12:51 PM

    SO its like our bodies adapt and work in a way that is negative to our own health?that it gets used to a non-healthy practice?!

    I just think there’s more to this than meets the eye.maybe what we want and believe in has an effect on the reward system.so if somebody starves to lose weight then their reward system becomes dormant-to the objective of being healthy.could it be that?

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