New Study Links Eating Disorders with Brain Malfunction

Drugs for treatment could be around the corner.

New research has linked anorexia and bulimia to a brain malfunction, which means drugs to treat the eating disorders could be on the horizon. Considering that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, this could be big news.

The study, reported in Biological Psychiatry, suggests that deficits in endocannabinoids could be associated with reduced appetite. Endocannabinoids are natural compounds in the body that affect both brain function and chemistry, much like medicinal compounds found in marijuana. The system plays a role in pain-sensation, mood, memory and, most significantly, appetite.

Since many people who have smoked marijuana report an urge to eat, researchers predicted deficits in the endocannabinoid system would be associated with reduced appetite.

In the study, they measured the endocannabinoid system indirectly by determining whether there was an increase or reduction in the number of endocannabinoid receptors, called CB1 receptors, in eating disorder patients.

Through studying several brain regions, they compared those suffering from anorexia or bulimia with healthy patients. Researchers found that women with anorexia nervosa and bulimia had deficits in endocannabinoid levels or reduced CB1 receptor function. Analysis also showed increased CB1 availability in the insula, a region of the brain that plays a role in body perception.

Although additional research is needed, the fact that studies are being done at all is a step in the right direction. As someone who has battled—and successfully overcame—anorexia nervosa, I know how difficult it can be to receive help. Not all insurance companies cover treatment, and psychologists and psychiatrists can be expensive. Statistics show that only one in ten people with eating disorders receive treatment.

Maybe this is because eating disorders are often stigmatized as some sort of warped cry for attention. Many people, some even in the medical community, just don’t take eating disorders seriously.

With further investigation in breakthrough drugs for anorexia and bulima, we can lower the mortality rate and make treatment for those suffering a little more accessible. The attention being given to this mental illness is not only long overdue but also extremely necessary.