Anorexia shrinks the brain

Anorexia is a mental illness. More and more children and young people are suffering from eating disorders. The current study shows serious consequences for the brain for the first time.

Anorexia is the most common eating disorder in Germany. According to the market research company Statista, 7,218 cases of this eating disorder were diagnosed in German hospitals in 2018.1 The number of unreported victims is likely to be much higher. Eating disorders are considered to be especially dangerous because they can lead to death if left untreated. A large international study now shows that anorexia even has serious consequences for the brain.

Brain changes due to anorexia

Anorexia is also often referred to in German as anorexia, which is derived from the Latin term anorexia nervosa. The disease usually develops during puberty (sometimes in childhood). The main feature is impaired self-image, because the disabled are perceived as too fat – even if they are already underweight. And so they are constantly hungry without being satisfied with how they look. This leads to a persistent lack of nutrients, which in the long run even damages the brain, according to researchers from the British University of Bath.2

Also interesting: How do parents know that their child is suffering from anorexia – and how can they help?

In the largest study of its kind to date, brain scans of 1648 women from 22 different parts of the world were analyzed. 685 subjects suffered from anorexia. “In this study, we have worked intensively with research teams around the world for several years,” said lead psychologist Esther Walton of the University of Bath. By evaluating thousands of brain scans of people with anorexia, brain changes could be examined in detail, the scientist explains.

Also interesting: Will there be a cure for anorexia in the future?

Lack of nutrients could cause a shrinking brain

Analyzing the scans, the researchers found that women with anorexia in the brain had less cortical cortex thickness and also less volume on the subcortical and cortical surfaces. In other words, the brain has shrunk compared to healthy women. Even more frightening is the fact that the negative effects of anorexia on the size and structure of the brain are two to four times greater than, for example, depression.

So far, scientists have not been able to say exactly why. However, they suspect that the low body mass index (BMI) of the affected and permanent nutrient deficiencies are to blame. A BMI less than 17.5 is considered anorexic.

Also interesting: How I experienced and overcame my anorexia

The brain can regenerate after anorexia

Despite the frightening findings, positive things can also be reported. Because brain scans also show that people who are in therapy and are recovering have fewer brain changes. “We found that the decline in brain structure we observed in those affected was less pronounced in patients who were already on the road to recovery,” study leader Esther Walton said in a university statement.3 This is a good sign and perhaps a sign that negative changes are not permanent. “With the right treatment, the brain may recover,” the expert adds.

This finding clearly shows how important it is for anorexic people to start therapy as soon as possible. According to the motto: the sooner the better – even for the brain! Researchers are now hoping for more studies to find out exactly what causes anorexia to shrink the brain. In this way, better therapeutic approaches can be developed to combat the causes.


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