In a novel but very small study, scientists were able to help some women with severe anorexia nervosa through deep brain stimulation (DBS). On the other hand, those who saw no improvement actually experienced fairly adverse side effects.
Anorexia nervosa is typically a chronic illness that affects around one percent of the population, and is mot usually diagnosed in teens between the ages of 15-19.
Anorexia has one of the highest mortality rates of any psychiatric disorder — between six and 11 percent — and is among the most difficult to treat, wrote the authors of the study in the Lancet medical journal.
DBS is used to treat several neurological disorders including Parkinson’s disease and chronic pain, but this was a first for anorexia.
In an attempt to normalize the activity of dysfunctional brain circuits, electrodes were implanted into the part of the brain that regulates emotion. The devices, which work in a way similar to that of pacemakers, were connected to a pulse generator implanted under the skin.
The technique, which is still in the experimental phase, showed some promise as it helped improve symptoms in half of the women, wrote the researchers.
After nine months, three of the six participants had gained weight and appeared to be in a better state of mind, they said.
For the three, “this was the longest period of sustained increase in BMI (Body Mass Index, which is defined as the ratio between a person’s height and weight) since the onset of their illness,” wrote the authors.
Furthermore, DBS “was associated with improvements in mood, anxiety… and anorexia nervosa-related obsessions and compulsions in four patients and with improvements in quality of life in three patients after six months of stimulation,” they said.
Three patients, however, showed no weight improvement and the scientists pointed out that the procedure was associated with “several adverse events”—including a seizure for one woman. Other negative effects included panic attacks, nausea and pain.
At the time of surgery, the women were between the ages of 24 and 57 and had been suffering from anorexia for between four and 37 years.
“The fact that the procedure was associated in some patients with improvements in affective and obsessional symptoms is of key importance since such improvements will go some way towards reassuring patients that DBS is not just another treatment designed to fatten them up without making them feel better,” they wrote.