New Study Suggests Dopamine Related to Anorexia Nervosa

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 John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Tiara J

    Tiara J

    May 25th, 2011 at 11:34 PM

    Oh! So it’s like their bodies are treating a desired thing as alien and is reacting negatively to it! That is so terrible.

  • Norma

    Norma

    May 26th, 2011 at 4:50 AM

    It IS important for them to regain weight but when their minds are telling them that they are already too fat, then how is that mind changing experience possible?

  • StanC.

    StanC.

    May 26th, 2011 at 11:07 PM

    I thought Dopamine was a drug, not a natural substance.

    Or is the dope people were talking about decades ago a completely different thing, or an extract or something of that ilk?

    I’m a bit confused. The old brain can’t keep up these days.

  • A Caddick

    A Caddick

    May 26th, 2011 at 11:56 PM

    This sounds terrible! I wonder if a combination of therapy, to help the person really understand that eating enough is necessary, and medication, to help the brain get rid of dopamine telling it doesn’t need food, would be a good treatment…?

  • Jodie Givens

    Jodie Givens

    May 27th, 2011 at 10:42 PM

    @StanC- It’s completely different. Dope is often used as a blanket term for just about any illegal drug, but it’s really a slang term that usually refers to heroin.

    I hope that helps clarify the difference in your mind. Personally, this is not a study that I feel comfortable about with them handing out amphetamines.

  • Traci Bowman

    Traci Bowman

    May 28th, 2011 at 8:06 PM

    This makes sense when you put it down to chemistry. At its roots, psychology is just applied chemistry imho, thus there is a chemical explanation for roughly everything.

    If the production of dopamine can be manipulated, couldn’t then a girl or boy with anorexia eat properly without having feelings about it?

  • L.L. Powers

    L.L. Powers

    May 29th, 2011 at 9:33 PM

    @Traci: I believe your theory is sound. But that also means that all illnesses can be manipulated with drugs.

    Maybe they can and maybe they can’t.

    I feel it would take a combination of chemical and psychological treatment in order to keep them on an even keel. Actually knowing the direct cause makes a big difference in figuring out the optimal treatment regime.

  • Vickie Hades

    Vickie Hades

    June 16th, 2011 at 7:50 PM

    Anorexia is a very destructive problem that I naively always thought could be overcome through sheer willpower, but I guess nobody really has that much willpower. We need more research funding for eating disorders, especially when we have research like this that we understand and can be expanded upon.

    Why couldn’t we tie up loose ends and be more thorough before diving into new research areas and not leave some half-baked that already shows promise?

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