Learn more about the neuroscience behind anorexia with our blog series titled From Noise to Nutrition.
Developing an increased awareness of the neuroscience behind eating disorders can help empower family members to intervene more effectively with their loved ones. As discussed in “Inside The Anorexic Brain,” research demonstrates that eating disorders are a biologically and brain-based illness. Studies now show that “noise” in the brain, as a result of faulty neural pathways, can be deafening to individuals, causing distorted thinking and rituals surrounding food. Subsequently, brain “noise” functions as a key barrier to recovery. This improved understanding of the neuroscience behind eating disorders, helps us understand the physical, mental and emotional experiences of eating disorders and informs best practices within the field.
Brain Pathways in an Individual With Anorexia Nervosa
When an individual struggling with anorexia nervosa expresses that he or she is not feeling hungry, family members, out of concern, question their claims or express frustration. There is often the implication that the decision not to eat is a choice. In reality, when an individual with AN begins to eat, signals from the brain and body are wildly misinterpreted.
When food enters the stomach of someone with anorexia, neurochemical messages are sent from the body to the brain. First, signals are sent from the “Sensory Relay Station” called the thalamus, to the insula, the “Taste/Hunger Station” where taste and hunger are registered. Individuals with “healthy” pathways will experience sensations such as flavor and fullness at this point in the pathway. For an individual with AN, however, signals within this pathway may fire a weak response, or not fire at all, contributing to a dulled sense of flavor in food. There may be little to no feeling of hunger present at all. This lack of taste, along with reduced hunger messages are relayed to the amygdala, the “Panic Station.” The amygdala sends out a warning as it becomes confused by the lack of clear food-related messages. When these alarms begin to go off in the panic station, there are no signals to suggest to the individual’s body and brain that food is safe. It’s easy to see how this pathway would reinforce anxiety around mealtime.
With this information, we may now react quite differently to the expressed anxiety of a loved one who is sitting down for a meal or snack. Normalizing their experience, offering support, providing psychoeducation, or consulting a treatment team member are the best options for helping alleviate their very real anxieties.
To learn more about how neuroscience has influenced eating disorder treatment and best practices, head over to From Noise to Nutrition: Part 2.
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