Anorexia shrinks the brain

Anorexia is one of the mental illnesses. More and more children and young people are affected by the eating disorder. A current study shows the serious consequences for the brain for the first time.

Anorexia is the most common eating disorder in Germany. According to data from the market research firm Statista, 7,218 cases of this eating disorder were diagnosed in German hospitals in 2018.1 The number of unreported victims is likely to be much higher. Eating disorder is considered particularly dangerous because it can lead to death if not treated. A large international study now shows that anorexia also has serious consequences for the brain.

Brain changes due to anorexia

Anorexia is also often referred to in German as anorexia, which comes from the Latin term anorexia nervosa. The disease usually develops during puberty (sometimes even in childhood). The main feature is a disturbed self-image, because those affected perceive themselves as too fat, even if they are already underweight. And so they continue to starve without ever being satisfied with their appearance. This leads to permanent nutrient deficiency, which also damages the brain in the long run, scientists from the British University of Bath have found.2

Also interesting: How do parents know if their child has anorexia and how can they help them?

In the largest study of its kind to date, scans of 1,648 brains of women from 22 different regions of the world were analyzed. 685 of the subjects suffered from anorexia. “We have worked extensively with research groups around the world for several years on this study,” says lead psychologist Esther Walton of the University of Bath. By evaluating thousands of brain scans of people with anorexia, the brain changes could be examined in detail, explains the scientist.

Also interesting: will there be an anorexia drug in the future?

Nutritional deficiencies could trigger brain shrinkage

Analyzing the scans, the researchers found that women with anorexia in the brain had lower cortical thickness, as well as lower volume at the subcortical and cortical surfaces. In other words, the brain had shrunk compared to healthy women. Even more frightening is the fact that the negative effects on brain size and structure of anorexia are two to four times greater than, for example, depression.

Researchers cannot yet say exactly why this is so. However, they suspect that this is due to the low body mass index (BMI) of those affected and the permanent lack of nutrients. A BMI below 17.5 is considered anorexic.

Also interesting: how I experienced and overcome my anorexia

The brain can regenerate after anorexia

Despite the frightening awareness, there are also positive things to report. Because brain scans also show that people who are in therapy and recovering have fewer brain changes. “We found that the decline in brain structure we observed in those affected was less noticeable in patients who were already on their way to recovery,” study leader Esther Walton said in a university statement.3 This is a good sign and perhaps an indication that negative changes are not permanent. “With the right treatment, the brain can eventually recover,” adds the expert.

The finding makes it clear how important it is for anorexic people to start therapy as soon as possible. According to the motto: the sooner the better, even for the brain! Researchers are now hoping for more studies to find out exactly what causes the brain to contract in anorexia. In this way, better therapeutic approaches can be developed to combat the causes.


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