Anorexia is a serious mental illness that comes with dangerous consequences. It’s also more common than we realize: Twenty million women and 10 million men will suffer an eating disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. The most popular form of treatment, talk therapy, is successful 20-30 percent of the time. Now, new research from King’s College London (KCL) suggests stimulating parts of the brain can reduce anorexia symptoms and improve the decision-making process in patients with the disorder.
Prior research traces anorexia back to the brain. One study suggests brain size is related to eating disorders, while a second study found anorexic patients have significantly greater activity in a brain region associated with habitual behavior. So it makes sense researchers from KCL would investigate the effects repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) has on anorexic patients.
The technology, which has been approved for treating depression, applies magnetic pulses to the brain in order to produce changes in activity, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. One of the brain’s key characteristics is neuroplasticity, meaning its malleable or easily influenced. As a result, rTMS can help patients form new brain connections, possibly develop healthier behavior. It’s relatively painless, safe, and seldom associated with serious side effects.
For the study, researchers tasked 49 anorexic patients to make several food-related decisions. Each one was designed to provoke symptoms — for example, participants would watch a film of people eating food that was also set in front of them. They were then asked to rate the smell, taste, and appearance of the foods, along with their personal urge to eat them. The second task focused on impulsivity: If participants chose a smaller, immediately available amount of money over a larger reward, they were considered impulsive. The larger reward, however, demonstrated an ability to delay gratification.
Participants completed the tasks both before and after a session of either real rTMS or a placebo therapy. The rTMS was applied to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the brain region associated with the ability to manage negative emotions and impulses. Researchers also measured anorexia symptoms immediately before and after the treatment, and at several points after the session.
Results showed those who received real rTMS reported reduced symptoms of anorexia compared to those who received the placebo. Ninety percent of participants even said they’d be willing to have daily sessions of rTMS, suggesting the treatment could work in real life.
The findings, however, are only based on an interpretation of data—a statistical trend. It’s all preliminary, but given the findings, researchers believe the effects would be even stronger in a larger sample undergoing multiple sessions. There was a clear improvement in decision-making following a single session, so researchers will continue to investigate the long-lasting benefits of rTMS.
Source: McClelland J, Kekic M, Bozhilova N, Nestler S, Dew T, Van den Eynde F, et al. A randomized controlled trial of neuronavigated repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) in Anorexia Nervosa. PLOS One. 2016.