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Researchers Believe Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation Can Help Treat Anorexia Nervosa

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A new study by researchers at King's College, London showed that, through brain stimulation, symptoms of anorexia nervosa can be reduced, and with persistent treatment, can be resolved.

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder associated with an extreme fear of getting fat and restriction of food consumption to reduce body weight, which can lead to death. People with anorexia tend to induce vomiting or take laxatives improperly to control calorie intake. People, especially women, can experience the disorder at some point in their lifetime and are considered to have the highest mortality rate, with one out of five cases of death. This disorder is also considered a mental illness.

In the study led by Dr. Jessica McClelland of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King's College, London, the researchers proposed that, through stimulating the brain using a non-invasive technique called repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation or rTMS, symptoms of anorexia can be reduced.

"We found that just one session of rTMS was able to reduce core symptoms of anorexia, which urged to restrict levels of feeling full and levels of feeling fat, and also encourage prudent decision-making," said McClelland.

The use of rTMS is already an approved method of treating depression. It alters the neural activity of the brain's specific regions by sending magnetic impulses, which gives the subject a feeling of a gentle tap inside the head.

This study is the first to use a randomized control trial or RCT in anorexia, making use of 44 participants who have anorexia nervosa. The participants were divided into two groups, the first provided the real rTMS and other a sham rTMS treatment. They were given food exposure and decision-making tasks before and after the treatment.

The task under food exposure aimed to provoke the symptoms of anorexia nervosa. The participants were shown a two-minute video of people eating foods like chips and chocolate. After watching the video, the participants were required to answer a set of questions pertaining to perceived smell, appearance, taste and the feeling of wanting to eat the foods.

On the other hand, the decision-making task provided the participants options of getting a little amount of money available immediately compared with a larger sum given to them at a later time with four-time spans — a week, a month, a year or two.

The researchers found out that those participants under real rTMS showed more prudent decision-making tendencies as they chose larger rewards provided in later times compared with a smaller sum of money given immediately. The placebo group showed the opposite.

Photo: NICHD | Flickr

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