The Brain’s Response To Food in Bulimia Nervosa

A research discovery has been made at University of California San Diego School of Medicine that suggests the disordered eating behaviors observed in an individual with Bulimia Nervosa (BN) may be the result of the brain’s exaggerated response to food rewards. Research suggests that these reward responses are heightened when compared to a control group who do not struggle with BN. Bulimia Nervosa is an eating disorder that is characterized by episodes of binge eating followed by efforts of purging to avoid weight gain. This brain-based research may help researchers and clinicians find alternative treatments for the disorder that affects nearly five million females and two million males in America.

The brain regulates eating via metabolic (hunger) and hedonic (reward) brain mechanisms. Researchers at UC San Diego were interested in addressing whether binge eating in BN results from disruption of one or both mechanisms, or is the product of their interaction.

A Study on the Brain’s Response to Food in Bulimia Nervosa

In an attempt to answer this question, researchers looked at various brain regions involved in evaluating taste signals and transitioning them into physical cues, such as hunger. This cueing system is the mode through which our behavior is driven. These regions include the insula, striatum, amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex.

Twenty-six individuals with a history of BN and twenty-two without were participants in this study. Each participant was administered a sugar-water formula after a 16-hour fast or a standardized breakfast in an attempt to see how their brains reacted to different tastes and hunger states. Interestingly, the group without a history of BN responded to taste more intensely when hungry, while those with a history of BN responded the same regardless of the level of hunger. The principal author of the study, Alice V. Ely, stated, “We found that the areas of the brain that differed in the two study groups were the left insula, putamen and amygdala, which determine how rewarding a taste might be, and how emotionally important, it is. That information is then sent to parts of the brain that motivate eating ”  

What does this mean in real time? If you are full and your brain’s response continues to tell you to eat, seeking a reward sensation, you may begin to lose control of your food-related behaviors.

Outpatient Treatments at Columbus Park

At Columbus Park treatment center in New York City, we utilize proven outpatient treatments such as CBT-E and DBT for Eating Disorders (DBT-ED) to target this very pattern. We have been highly successful in treating binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa in our comfortable outpatient setting. The treatments we use are expected to yield a reduction in binge eating/purging of 50% by week eight of treatment. If such a shift is not experienced this early on in the treatment, we will work to reformulate the treatment plan to be sure that we’re achieving the intended results.

Want to learn more about the treatment options provided at Columbus Park? Click here.