Deep brain stimulation and anorexia

In the past week or so there has been some media attention surrounding new research using deep brain stimulation as an experimental treatment for the eating disorder anorexia.

As you likely know – anorexia is a very challenging condition causing sufferers to have a distorted perception of their body and an unhealthy obsession with being thin. This results in individuals starving themselves and refusing to maintain a normal body weight.

These behaviours seem often to be tied to a person’s desire to control an area of life when anxiety or emotional symptoms feel overhwleming.

Anorexia affects many more females than males. It often begins in adolescence and tends to have a chronic trajectory – leading to hospital stays, very serious health effects and sometimes death by starvation.

Anorexia can be very difficult to treat. One of the biggest barriers to treatment is unwillingness by patients. Often, patients are brought in for treatment by worried parents who can’t stand to watch their child wasting away. When the patient does not believe they have a problem and is not motivated to receive help, treatment can be nearly impossible.

Over the years, many treatments have been used to manage this condition. Various forms of talk therapy and some antidepressant medications have been used with different degrees of success. Unfortunately, the disease can be difficult to manage even in willing patients and not everyone responds well to treatments.  For this reason, it is exciting to see new options being developed.

Deep brain stimulation is a process in which doctors surgically implant electrodes in certain areas of the brain and then deliver electric stimulation through a device similar to a pacemaker. The stimulation encourages activity in these areas of the brain.

Deep brain stimulation has been investigated in the past few years for several conditions including depression, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy with some promising early results. I have written in the past on studies of this kind of deep brain stimulation for treatment resistant depression.

Recent research out of Toronto is getting some media attention. This group found that anorexic patients receiving deep brain stimulation for six months saw significant improvement in comorbid mood and anxiety symptoms. These improvements lasted for a further six months after treatment and resulted in weight gain.

Researchers believe the study confirms the physical and emotional symptoms in anorexia are inextricably linked.  It will be interesting to see what future studies of this kind will show.

In the meantime, if you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder, it is important to seek help from an experienced professional. Talk to your doctor to learn about local resources and options.


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