The Neuroscience of Eating Disorders
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The Neuroscience of Eating Disorders

August 16, 2019


Food is a basic necessity of life – we literally
can’t live without it. But our relationship with food can be…complicated. So the existence of eating disorders isn’t
really that surprising. Hey there! I’m Alie Astrocyte, and in this
episode of Neuro Transmissions, we’re going to get a little bit heavy. Eating disorders are a difficult and serious
topic, but this week we’re going to talk about some advances scientists have made in
understanding these disorders in order to develop better, more effective treatments The term “eating disorder” actually covers
a broad range of conditions. The two most commonly depicted in popular
media are anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Anorexia nervosa is characterized by extreme
caloric restriction – people who suffer from anorexia usually maintain strict control over
what they eat, eating only a few hundred calories per day, if they eat anything at all. Because of this, people with anorexia frequently
show extreme weight loss Bulimia usually entails cycles of binging
and purging – eating a lot of food, then making themselves vomit, using laxatives, or exercising
excessively to purge their bodies of the calories they’ve just consumed. Bulimia can be harder to see, because often
people with bulimia maintain a fairly steady weight. These disorders affect mostly young women,
but they are becoming more common in men, too These aren’t the only two eating disorders
out there – there’s also binge-eating disorder, where an individual loses control over their
eating and consumes far more calories than recommended in a short period of time. This can lead to obesity and other related
health problems, and it doesn’t discriminate – both men and women experience binge eating
disorder at about the same rate. Eating disorders are no small problem, either.
About 30 million people in the United States suffer from an eating disorder. That would
be like all of Boston, Houston, Chicago, Phoenix, and San Francisco combined! Many people may have the misconception that
eating disorders aren’t really disorders at all – that they’re really just a reflection
of the vanity or greediness of an individual. In reality, eating disorders are serious psychiatric
illnesses, recognized by doctors and psychologists. And it turns out that there’s some pretty
interesting neuroscience going on, too. One of the things that makes eating disorders
so serious is that they’re very hard to treat; up to a third of people who receive
treatment for anorexia end up relapsing. And many of those who recover physically still
struggle with obsessions about their weight and food intake. A study in published in summer of 2015 found
that part of why recovery is so difficult may be that anorexia and other eating disorders
aren’t a case of strong willpower or picky eating. In fact, anorexic behaviors seem to become
habits – so deeply ingrained that sufferers aren’t even aware of their food choices. This particular study used functional magnetic
resonance imaging, or fMRI, which uses blood flow in the brain to help scientists track
brain activity changes. 21 patients being treated for anorexia nervosa,
along with 21 control participants, were asked to rate food on a scale from 1 to 5, where
1 was “unhealthy”, 3 was “neutral”, and 5 was “healthy”. They were also asked to rate food on a taste
scale from 1 to 5 – 1 was “bad”, 3 was “neutral”, and 5 was “good”. A food item they had ranked as “neutral”
on both taste and heathiness was randomly selected, and while participants were having
their brains scanned in the fMRI, they were asked to make different food choices between
the “neutral” item and other foods they had previously ranked. What the scientists found was that individuals
with anorexia had a lot more activity than controls in a brain region called the dorsal
striatum when they were making decisions about which food to eat. The dorsal striatum is a region that’s associated
with reinforcement learning – basically habit formation – and decision making. These results indicated to the scientists
that it wasn’t so much that the women with anorexia were choosing not to eat, or choosing
to only eat super-healthy food – but rather that they were unconsciously slipping back
into a deeply ingrained habit. So it might be that treating eating disorders
successfully requires more of a habit-breaking approach, like we use with substance abuse,
rather than simply telling sufferers to “stop acting that way”. There’s also evidence that other brain regions
show different patterns of activity in patients recovering from anorexia in a brain region
called the insula. The insula is a part of the cortex that helps
the brain identify what it’s tasting. Along with other brain regions, like the amygdala
and the orbitofrontal cortex, the insula helps us identify what tastes we like and don’t
like. More activity is seen in these regions when
we’re hungry, and less when we’re full. These brain areas, along with the ventral
striatum, help determine how motivated we are by food. When individuals with normal eating patterns
are given a sweet-tasting stimulus during brain imaging, there is a lot of activity
seen in their insula. The more they report liking sugar, the more activity in the insula. On the other hand, patients who are recovering from anorexia show lower levels of activity in the insula – which might indicate that
they find the sugary taste less pleasurable than their control counterparts. These individuals appear to actually experience
taste differently, even after recovery! Scientists interpret this as indicating that
people who suffer from anorexia are less driven by hunger and appetite signals than usual. And with less motivation to eat, it may be
easier for these individuals to drive themselves to the edge of starvation. Researchers are still working to understand
the neuroscience of eating disorders, and are currently limited by available scientific
techniques to help them break down the biology of the brain. But these results are helping doctors and
psychologists determine their approach to treatment. For example, since anorexia seems to be connected
to ingrained habits, doctors now recommend that patients in recovery try eating in new
places, to help break the habits formed by disordered eating. And hopefully as scientists continue to develop
new techniques, we can continue to develop new treatments. In the mean time, there are a lot of resources
out there to help individuals with disordered eating recover. If you or someone you know is struggling with
an eating disorder, please check out the resources we’ve listed in the description below. Thanks so much for watching this week’s
episode of Neuro Transmissions. If you enjoyed it, hit subscribe to become a Brainiac – and
consider supporting us on Patreon if you’re really excited about what we do. We really appreciate your support! Until next time, I’m Alie Astrocyte – over
and out!

Only registered users can comment.

  1. Good video … but what's with all the random noises interspersed in there? They really detract from what you're trying to say.

  2. I randomly stumbled across your Twitter account and clicked your YouTube link when I saw you were a neuroscientist. I'm so glad I did! This video is delightful. Nothing makes me happier than clear and concise communication of accurate neuroscience. And I love the obvious references to Bill Nye The Science Guy! Just subscribed and turned on alert.

  3. hey, good video!
    Can you tell me, how do you get your animation done; do you make the video all by yourself?
    please guide me, I am looking forward to make lecture videos myself, just need some help, thanks!

  4. I used to have bulimia, now I have anorexia. I always wished someone could have helped me. In my school, my friend and I are doing a presentation about eating disorders to spread awareness, I waned to know if I could use the facts u mentioned in the video??

  5. My heart is actually getting weaker because I'm struggeling with an ED. Anorexia. I'm a dude, my girlfriend is actually the only Person who makes me eat. I'm at the point where I get sick when I eat more than an apple a day. My girlfriend tries to help me, she's good at it and she makes me feel better about myself. I'm still doing too much sport and eating not enough, but it has been getting better. I'm at 52 kilograms and my sick goal was at 40. She calculated how I might look If I got to that weight, I would look like I just got out of a concentration camp.
    I might be dead if it wasnt for her.

  6. help me..I have bulimia .. I don't know what should I do. it's hurts me so much.. my stomach get hurt so much… it's like my stomach being ripped off when ever I throwing up my food

  7. you guys should just call this the neuroscience of anorexia because although you did cover other EDs in the intro, most of the science was on anorexia. Perhaps you should do science research on bulimia and Binge eating disorders next?

  8. Great video but I wish you would have covered OSFED and went more in-depth about the neurology of bulimia and binge eating disorder , I hope this doesn’t sound like me complaining, just something I was thinking about 🙂

  9. I find the random background voices to be insensitive. Stop trying to be like Bill Nye the science guy. This is about eating disorders, not fun with science. Smh.

  10. That is so interesting when you talked about the study that showed that eating disorders were more of a habit! I struggle with Binge Eating Disorder, and I have not been able to stop because a lot of the time I eat without realizing it. It's just so natural for me to constantly snack or keep eating it's hard for me to take a step back and realize what I'm doing. Or if I do, I'm already halfway through stuffing my face with whatever. It's frustrating that I can never seem to stop.

  11. Why is it that when talking about ED's everyone focuses on anorexia, which is the least common eating disorder, and not on binge eating or bulimia which are the most common? Where is the science on BED and bulimia?

  12. I suffer from EDNOS and I go through cycles of different eating disorders. My first stage is binge eating, my second stage goes to bulimia, finally it turns into anorexia and then cycles back to binge where I repeat the cycle all over again. I'm currently on my binge eating episode but it's only a matter of time until I hit my bulimia where I cut my caloric intake and burn it all off by working out. It is incredibly hard to deal with because the comments that people say about it: 'Oh, you don't look like you have an eating disorder', ' If you have an eating disorder, then why aren't you skinny bones?'

    It's incredibly hard to balance healthy eating and not to turn it into bulimia or anorexia… or to just say 'fuck it' and gorge yourself in unhealthy foods.

    On my binge cycle, I gained 20 pounds in 1 month, with bulimia I lost 12 pounds in 2 weeks and with my anorexia cycle, I lost 10 pounds in 1 week.

    I work very hard to not listen to ana, mia and ben (binge) but those little voices still resonate me back. It is a work in progress but one day I eat a healthy happy lifestyle!

  13. I feel like I’m slipping into an eating disorder but it’s not all the way their yet. Sometimes I feel like I have to see how many calories there are, and one time I even made a goal to only have 500 calories a day, but I didn’t do it. Then sometimes I feel like I have to throw up my food but it’s not all the time it’s sometimes. And I don’t want to be very skinny but I feel like I shouldn’t eat. Can anyone help me know if I’m falling into an eating disorder.

  14. This video was basically just about anorexia. I had anorexia and bulimia and i would love a video that is based on bulimia

  15. you have to want to get better to get better. some people just don't want to get better. myself included, could be due to life being crappy or certain situations. Although I have over time basically switched from bulimia nervosa to endos. I still get urges to purge, it hurts really bad though. After doing it since I was 14 on and off and being 20 now. 16-18 were worst of it was constant purging everything.I dont really get urges to binge, i get urges to purge if I eat too much or something mostly I restrict heavily or eat somewhat "normal" I dont eat meals and my diet is way different than before its fish mostly only exception is chicken from my work no where else lots of black beans pinto beans, limited dairy no eggs like cooked eggs if they are in something its ok, no red meat, energy drinks/coffee/tea/limited soda, no bread, yams, berries./fruit. Also I drink heavily so. but I dont really binge as much. I sometimes overeat which thats when I feel the urges but cant really do that at work and roommates

  16. I am a male anorexic and I just want to say that I lost an extreme amount of weight only restricting my intake to 2,000 calories per day and working out for five hours a day six days a week so not all anorexics restrict to a few hundred calories

  17. I just need to point out that anorexics don't always just eat a few hundred calories a day. They can eat the "healthy" amount of calories recommended for weight loss, 1200-1500, even more, and still lose a huge amount of weight. Eating disorders manifest in so so many different ways. I believe that each individual's disorder is unique, even when they have the same diagnosis.

    But this video is very interesting. I often feel like I have no damn clue how my mind works when it comes to food and my body.

  18. My Mum constantly gets mad because she thinks it’s a choice I made for attention. She tried to make a joke about it today, that upset me quite a bit, and I told her that, and she yelled at me, saying that it’s because it’s true and that why it hurt. She then told me to stop being so sensitive and that I hurt her by starving myself.

  19. If , of someone is watching comment section
    To recover yourself , only thing is there ,only one Thing , what i feel in all there 11-12 years of eating disorder in my life ..
    Keep yourself self busy in professional needed works.
    Do exercise twice a day , not heavy , just for 30+30 minutes in 24 hrs .
    Eat 5-6 times in a proper Needed meal. Eat while you sit in comfort place.

    And eat vartites but in a respective needed quantity , don't understand the ml., G or galon … QUANTITY , under your Needed need of stomach , your Body , your tounge and NUTRITION , most important…

    After eating be in your needed work not in deep thinking.

  20. I have been told I suffer from anorexia but I don’t believe I do I feel like I am a healthy weight for my height I am 6’2” and weight 63kg I feel my weight should about 50-55kg I am working towards this to be happy and healthy

  21. Well it kinda makes sense us anorexics react to hunger and starvation less… we literally force ourselves to do so! It's nice to know that it really isn't much of a choice though… helps me out when I get the courage to talk to my family about it…

  22. Hi, your videos are great for learning. I'd love if there was some background music like you put in the video on epilepsy. Thank you, you guys are great! Love.

  23. Am I the only one that seems to be disturbed by the random, weird, male noises in the background? They almost seem satirical at some points…you know, like when you're talking about something and your friend is like "oh really? uh huh, sure, wooow" (in a mocking way, lol).

  24. this would be a good movie to show family members of people w eating disorders..to help them understand what go on inside their minds

  25. Surprise surprise, yet another video focused mainly on anorexia and the stereotypes that surrounds Ed’s.

  26. I don’t know who decided that a grunting male voice would improve this video, but they were wrong. Really wrong. Please stop it stop it stop it

  27. Ok im sorry But anorexia and other eating disorders are serious,and it sounds like you try to make it some joke. I, myself am suffering from anorexia, and for me, almost everything your saying is wrong. Anorexia isn’t just ONE thing, it can be multiple things if you know what I’m saying. I’m sorry I just had to point it out

  28. the sugar part confused me… the conclusion was a bit too black and white for me. Because my thought was that when a person with anorexia obsesses over not eating or only eating what they presume as healthy, they start to eat no more sugar. So most of us humans are addicted to sugar, we end up eating it a lot because our parents already feed us sugery treats from the start and we grow to love the taste and get addicted to it. But when you stop eating sugar, your body can adapt to the new lifestyle and your addiction to sugar fades away. When you taste sugar after not eating it a long time most of the time it won't taste that good anymore. So the control group was probably addicted or used to sugery food so they end up loving it, but the anorexia patients were not and so they end up disliking it.

  29. i am suffering from bulimia and anorexia and nobody really understands what its like and i don’t know if i should tell someone because if they don’t understand

  30. Not all anorexics constantly restrict, sometimes the cravings get so bad they binge, some might purge after a binge or some might not. It all depends on the individual themselves, not everyone experiences the same things when in comes to having an eating disorder.
    just thought i should state that.

  31. Good video!! But what i dont like from fMRI studies is that they conclude as if a person's brain configuration is the CAUSE of their illness, like you said: for having less intensity in their insula responding to taste, they are more driven to starvation. But that is not a scientific evidence. It probably is the CONSEQUENCE of years of low interest for food.When explaining science, it is important to distinguish between two kinds of relations: correlation and causality. Because a message like this could be missunderstood, as if "this person became anorexic because she had a brain less responsive to food". Most people with eating disorders have a normal brain, and with years of habits and fears, they become different, and THAT change is shown in the fMRI. It is also important to remember the PLASTICITY of brains: they change along with our habits, we are the consequence of what we do. We aren't confined to how we are morfologically born. Besides from this, thank you for letting your community understand the suffering of EDs ❤

  32. A book I highly recommend to anyone struggling with an ED is “Life Without Ed” by Jenni Schaefer. It’s really interesting how she personifies her eating disorder “Ed” as a separate and controlling force in her life. She declared independence from Ed in a way that had been inspiring to lots of folks I know.

  33. I don't know wtf I have. Some days I starve or eat as little as I can and other days I'm just fine eat whatever and then my bad days I eat EVERYTHING I can find…but I'm usually so weak and exhausted I can't bring myself to purge, so I starve again

  34. all im going to say is that I LOVE sugar and sweet tasting things but that doesn't mean im not scared of them!

  35. As a recovering anorexic I can confirm that I'm not driven by hunger like other people. I am blown away by people who are excited to eat something, and I don't understand how people know to eat enough food simply by how hungry they feel. At worst food is the scariest thing I could do to myself, at best it's a chore I'd rather not have to do.

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