Can Anorexia Nervosa Damage Brain Structure? This is the Fact!


Often misunderstood as a diet, anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that makes patients emaciated because they don’t dare to eat. Not only for mental, anorexia nervosa that is left alone can be dangerous for a person’s life.

In addition to health, it turns out that anorexia nervosa can also change organs. Not weight, recent studies note that anorexia nervosa has the potential to change the structure of the brain of sufferers . Is that true?

1. Involve thousands of participants
Various studies have noted the impact of anorexia on gray matter and cortical thickness of the brain, but results have been inconsistent in other studies. Therefore, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry at the end of May 2022, European and United States (US) researchers wanted to find out how anorexia nervosa affects the gray matter of the brain.

To do this, the researchers scanned the brains of 1,648 female participants from 22 locations around the world. Participants consisted of 685 anorexia nervosa patients and 963 healthy participants. Then, the researchers analyzed the participants into three groups:

Healthy participants.
Anorexia nervosa patients with acute underweight (466 participants).
Patients with anorexia nervosa receiving treatment with gradual recovery of body weight (251 participants).

2. Result: Anorexia nervosa causes brain shrinkage
As a result, the researchers confirmed that the condition anorexia nervosa—if left unchecked—can cause brain shrinkage. This can be seen from the shrinkage in cortical thickness, sub-cortical volume, and cortical surface area.

Anorexia nervosa is known to cause a significant decrease in body mass index (BMI) and patients to experience nutritional deficiencies. Therefore, the investigators also confirmed that these findings were more pronounced in anorexia nervosa patients with lower BMIs than in patients undergoing treatment.

According to the researchers, changes in brain structure in patients with anorexia nervosa are 2–4 times greater than other health disorders. It is feared that this can lead to a range of mental disorders, such as depression , attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ( ADHD ), or obsessive compulsive disorder ( OCD ).

3. Confirmation from previous studies
The results of this study on the brain and anorexia nervosa are no surprise. Various previous studies have proven that anorexia nervosa does cause brain shrinkage.

Published in the journal Translational Psychiatry in 2021, German and Australian researchers peered at the brains of 27 patients with anorexia nervosa. As a result, the researchers found that there was cortical thinning or reduced gray matter in the patient’s brain.

4. It’s not too late to recover from anorexia
Lead researcher from the University of Bath , UK, Dr. Esther Walton, said that this study involved years of hard work and collaboration of researchers around the world. By combining various brain scans of anorexic patients, the structural disturbances of the brain can be seen more clearly.

Based on the results of the study, the researchers emphasized the importance of treating patients with anorexia nervosa to avoid permanent brain damage . With appropriate psychotherapy and an integrated weight gain program by a nutritionist, many patients recover successfully.

This is also evident from previous research. Published in the 2021 journal Psychoneuroendocrinology , German researchers monitored the brains of 55 recovering anorexia nervosa patients. As a result, their brains recovered as usual, like healthy people in general.