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Bulimia Seems to Weaken Brain’s Reward Circuitry

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

Bulimia Seems to Weaken Brain’s Reward Circuitry

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Bulimia Seems to Weaken Brain’s Reward Circuitry. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 25, 2019, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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