Anorexia nervosa is a deadly eating disorder that mainly afflicts young women. Although most people enjoy eating and feel the experience of the release of dopamine, the feel good hormone, those with anorexia experience heightened anxiety when confronted with food. Previous research has examined the reward process of the brain and what role dopamine might play in this eating issue. A new study, led by Walter Kaye, MD, professor of psychiatry and director of the Eating Disorder Treatment and Research Program at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, implemented advanced imaging technology to examine the release of dopamine in the test subject’s brains. In order to stimulate the dopamine levels, the researchers gave each participant an amphetamine, which stimulates the creation and release of dopamine. They found that the dopamine caused pleasure in healthy women, but made those with anorexia feel extremely anxious and uncomfortable.
“This is the first study to demonstrate a biological reason why individuals with anorexia nervosa have a paradoxical response to food,” said Kaye. “It’s possible that when people with anorexia nervosa eat, the related release of the neurotransmitter dopamine makes them anxious, rather than experiencing a normal feeling of reward. It is understandable why it is so difficult to get people with anorexia nervosa to eat and gain weight, because food generates intensely uncomfortable feelings of anxiety.”
The study involved women who had never been diagnosed with anorexia, and women who had recovered from the symptoms of anorexia for over a year. The researchers believe that the anxious feelings reported in the study could be contributed to pre-existing emotions, rather than a result of the women being at an unhealthy and below average weight. Currently, there are no effective clinical treatments that minimize the severity of anorexia nervosa or the accompanying anxiety. Experts emphasize that it is imperative for those with anorexia to gain weight to affect recovery.
© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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