A new research effort suggests bulimia can directly affect brain function.

Researchers studied the difference in brain activity among healthy and bulimic women when they were presented with a learning task reinforced by a reward.

Bulimia nervosa is a severe eating disorder associated with episodic binge eating followed by extreme behaviors to avoid weight gain such as self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives or excessive exercise.

In the new study, Guido Frank, M.D., and his research team studied the brain response to a dopamine-related reward-learning task in bulimic and healthy women. Dopamine is an important brain chemical that helps regulate behavior such as learning and motivation.

Frank found that bulimic women had weakened response in brain regions that are part of the reward circuitry. This response was related to the frequency of binge/purge episodes.

Researchers believe the findings are important because they directly implicate the brain reward system and related dopamine function in this disorder.

Second, bulimic behavior appears to directly influence brain reward function and it is uncertain whether such alterations return to normal with recovery or not.

Third, brain dopamine could be a treatment target in bulimia nervosa using specific medication that targets those abnormalities.

“This is the first study that suggests that brain dopamine-related reward circuitry, pathways that modulate our drive to eat, may have a role in bulimia nervosa,” says Frank.

That is, the more often an individual has binge/purge episodes, the less responsive is the brain.

“That suggests that the eating disorder behavior directly affects brain function. These findings are important since the brain dopamine neurotransmitter system could be an important treatment target for bulimia nervosa,” said Frank.

Source: University of Colorado Denver