A recent study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology looked at the brains of women suffering from Bulimia Nervosa, a type of Eating Disorder. They found that the brains of women with bulimia had an abnormal response to stress and food cues.

Bulimia is a serious eating disorder

Bulimia Nervosa is a serious eating disorder that affects 3 out of every 1000 Americans, or approximately 0.3% of the total population. While this disorder can affect people of all genders, it is significantly more common in women. Bulimia involves the consumption of extreme amounts of food in periods known as binges.

During a binge, most people report that they feel completely out of control and are unable to do anything to stop their actions. After the binge is complete, people complete some sort of purging activity in an attempt to counteract the binge. Purging methods can include induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives, excessive exercise practices, and restrictive dieting.

This illness is very serious and is not without its complications. Repeated purging can cause dehydration which leads to kidney failure, cardiovascular conditions, and even death. Additionally, women are likely to have irregular menstrual cycles, or have their periods stop entirely. Patients often suffer from erosion of the tooth enamel and ulcers in the stomach or throat.

There is also an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

Scientists look to differences in the brain to explain the condition

Brittany Collins Ph.D was the head researcher of a new study coming out of the Children's National Medical Center in Washington D.C. The team put together a small group of twenty women, ten of which had been diagnosed with Bulimia and ten who had not been.

The experiment started by asking all women to go into an MRI machine. Once in the MRI they would be exposed to images of food, as well as neutral everyday objects. They were then taken out of the MRI, asked to solve a mathematical equation that is known for being impossible, and then moved back to the MRI where they were shown the same images.

Throughout the experiment, both groups of women reported similar stress levels and similar food cravings.

Although self-reported results seemed to be fairly similar between the two groups, researchers found that something very different was going on in the brains of the women with bulimia. When these women were shown the images of food, after they tried to complete the math problem, the MRI showed decreased blood flow in a particular region of the brain. This region corresponds to the ability to think about the self. As a result, food cues were helping to decrease stress levels. Women without this condition had the opposite occur and researchers saw an increase in blood flow to the same region.

Collins and her team repeated this experiment with a larger group of women only to get the same results.

This research suggests that food serves as a coping mechanism which allows the brain to shift its focus away from the self during times of stress.