Thousands of girls are predisposed to develop anorexia because of the way their brains developed in the womb, a major study revealed on Sunday.
The report’s authors say schoolchildren could be screened at the age of 8 to identify the signs that make them more vulnerable to risk factors such as the size zero fad and the cult of the super-thin celebrity. Eating disorder charities said the findings, which will be revealed at a conference at the Institute of Education in London this week, could revolutionize the treatment of anorexia.
“Our research shows that certain kids’ brains are made in a way that makes them more vulnerable to the more commonly known risk factors for eating disorders, such as the size-zero debate, media representations of very skinny women and bad parents,” said Ian Frampton, one of the authors, who is an honorary consultant in pediatric psychology at London’s Great Ormond Street hospital.
Frampton and his colleagues conducted in-depth neuropsychological testing on more than 200 people in the UK, US and Norway who suffer from the condition. Almost all of those who took part in the study were girls and young women aged between 12 and 25 who were being treated for anorexia at private hospitals in Edinburgh and Maidenhead that are part of the Huntercombe Group.
They found that around 70 percent of the patients had suffered damage to their neurotransmitters, which help brain cells communicate with each other, had undergone subtle changes in the structure of their brains, or both.
LUCK OF THE DRAW
One in every few hundred girls may be affected in this way, according to Frampton, who said the condition was random and not the result of poor maternal diet or environmental factors, such as widespread use of chemicals.
Imperfect wiring in the brain’s insular cortex that may lead to dyslexia, ADHD or depression in other children produces what he calls “an underlying vulnerability” among some young people that makes them more likely to develop anorexia nervosa in later life.
Previously, scientists believed that being chronically underweight caused changes in a person’s brain. This new research is significant because it suggests that the opposite process explains the origins of anorexia. “These findings could help us to understand this beguiling disease that we don’t know how to treat,” added Frampton.
“Arguments that social factors such as girls feeling under pressure to lose weight in order to look like high-profile women in the media contain logical flaws because almost everyone is exposed to them, yet only a small percentage of young people get anorexia.
“Those things are important but there must be other factors, involving genetics and science, that make some young people much more vulnerable than others.”
Between 2 percent and 3 percent of children and young adults develop an eating disorder. Anorexia is the rarest of them. About four women in every thousand develop it. Cases among men are rare but not unknown. It can lead to serious health problems and prove fatal. Karen Carpenter, the 1970s pop star, died in 1983 at the age of 32 from a heart attack brought on by the condition.
THE WAY FORWARD
In recent years, the fashion industry has come under pressure to protect the health of its models following widespread anger about the size-zero trend and the deaths of two models. On the eve of a photographic shoot in November 2006, Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston died from complications arising from anorexia. It was reported that she had been living on a diet of apples and tomatoes. It followed the death that summer of Uruguayan model, Luisel Ramos, who died of heart failure at the age of 22 after not eating for several days in an attempt to stay thin.
Susan Ringwood, chief executive of the leading eating disorders’ charity, Beat, welcomed the latest research.
“It could pave the way for the first drugs to be developed to treat eating disorders, similar to the way that anti-depressants help rebalance the brain of people with depression,” she said.
“And it will help parents understand that they aren’t to blame. Parents always blame themselves when their child develops an eating disorder. But what we are learning more and more from research in this area is that some people are very vulnerable to anorexia and that is down to genetic factors and brain chemistry, and not them trying to look like celebrity models or suffering a major traumatic event early in their lives.
“This research is a key missing part of the jigsaw of our understanding of anorexia.”
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