A New Study Highlights the Role Habit Plays in Anorexia
Anorexia is a notoriously difficult illness to treat, with sufferers considered to have extraordinary willpower to control their need for food. Recently, a new study has been published suggesting that anorexia may be a habitual behavior sparked by brain functions that originate in the dorsal striatum.
This new study, published in Nature Neuroscience, found that the dorsal striatum, an area of the brain that is a major player in decision-making and habit learning, showed increased activity when participants were asked to make food choices. According to the Washington Post, this is the same area of the brain found in previous studies to play a part in drug addiction.
Similar to addictions to substances and behaviors like compulsive shopping or gambling, people with anorexia seem unable to make better choices despite the destructive, potentially life-threatening consequences of their actions. Even when entering treatment with motivation to get well, anorexic clients have a very hard time remaining in recovery within a year after discharge.
Patients with Anorexia Show an Increased Activity in the Dorsal Striatum
This most recent research, conducted at the New York State Psychiatric Institute/Columbia University Medical Center Eating Disorders Research Clinic, studied 21 clients with anorexia and 21 healthy control participants over a period of 2 days. Participants were asked to choose any food they wanted from a buffet menu, and during this process went through magnetic resonance imaging of their brains. During this process, the participants with anorexia showed increased activity in the dorsal striatum.
Designing Treatment Plans
What does this study mean for anorexia treatment? According to the New York Times, it helps to shed light on some of the motivations for people vulnerable to anorexia. Because increased activity in the dorsal striatum may indicate that eating disordered behaviors are habitual in nature, it shows that engaging in these behaviors that result in weight loss can be rewarded by distress relief and increase in confidence. Over time, these “rewards” become less obvious as the illness overtakes the patient’s life and wreaks havoc on physical health. By that point, reversing the habitual behavior becomes an arduous task for both patient and treatment team. Helping clients to begin to replace the destructive behaviors with others that act opposite: considering foods that are outside of the routine, for example.
This research will undoubtedly assist clinicians and treatment centers in designing treatment plans that best consider the factors that make clients vulnerable to eating disorders.
Goode, E. (2015). Anorexia May Be Habit, Not Willpower, Study Finds. The New York Times.
Cha, A. (2015). The Power of Habit and a New Theory of Anorexia. The Washington Post.