Anorexia is an eating disorder characterized by low weight and an aversion to food, but a new study suggests that the condition may also be marked by autistic traits that last far after a patient’s recovery. The research, carried out by a team from the Sahlgrenska Academy in Sweden, found both behavioral and physical similarities between women with a history of anorexia and autistic women.

According to the study, a number of women with a history of anorexia displayed eating patterns typical to autistic women, such as finding certain food smells unbearable, being unable to eat around others, and struggling to both cut and chew food at the same time. In addition, MRI scans showed that anorexic women had the same changes as women with autism in the parts of the brain linked to social cognition. These changes were caused by thinning of the gray matter just behind the temple area. What’s more, these changes were still observed once the women had recovered from their disorder and reached a healthy weight.

Read: Brains Of People With Eating Disorders Communicate Backward

“Their general eating patterns improved during the follow-up year, but it was specifically noteworthy that they were still at the same level in their autistic behavior in terms of meal times,” says Louise Karjalainen, study author, in a recent statement.

The research is based on data from 30 women with anorexia nervosa between the ages of 15 and 25, who were studied about one year after they had recovered from their disorder. While the results show a clear similarity between anorexia and autistic behavior and thinking patterns, it is still not clear if these existed before anorexia onset or were indeed caused by the eating disorder.

According to The National Eating Disorder Association, anorexia is a life threatening eating disorder marked by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. In addition to lasting autistic traits, long-term health consequences of anorexia nervosa also include an abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure, increased risk for osteoporosis, and overall weakness.

Karjalainen hopes her research will lead to better treatments for women with anorexia nervosa that aim to not only save their health by being food-centered, but also reduce the risk of relapse. However, with this being said, relapse of anorexia is not as high as you may think. A study published late last year suggested that around two-thirds of women with anorexia and bulimia do go on to make a complete and lasting recovery.

"These findings challenge the notion that eating disorders are a life sentence," said Kamryn Eddy, PhD, corresponding author of the study, in a statement. "While the road to recovery is often long and winding, most people will ultimately get better.”

Source: Karjalainen L. Eating disorders, eating pathology and ESSENCE. Doctoral Theses From Sahlgrenska Academy. 2017

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