How Neuroscience is Changing Eating Disorder Treatment

Friday, Mar 03  •  


Until the later 20th century, much of the scientific community subscribed to the idea that once fully developed, the human brain was static—fixed in its current state and incapable of being changed. However, as scientific methodologies evolved, new research began to indicate that the human brain was in fact plastic—able to be changed throughout the course of individuals’ lives as a result of their environment and experiences.

In addition to helping people who have suffered strokes or other brain injuries, the discovery of brain plasticity—also known as neuroplasticity—came with major implications for the mental health field: people could recover from emotional trauma and mental disorders by learning to alter dysfunctional neural pathways in the human brain that had previously become wired together, and replacing them with newly wired pathways based on healthier beliefs, thought patterns, and positive experience.

Too often, individuals suffering from eating disorders and other forms of mental illness make the false assumption that there’s something irreparably wrong with them—that their brain is somehow defective or permanently damaged. But thanks to the advancements made in neuropsychology, even people who have suffered for decades have reason for hope. According to Dr. Ed Hamlin, President of the Institute for Applied Neuroscience, “The greatest discovery, I think, that’s happened in neuroscience has been the discovery of neuroplasticity—that the brain is shaped by experiences. If you can change the experiences, you can actually change the brain’s functioning and structure. I think it’s a very encouraging message to deliver.” Hamlin continues, “People tend to think that there’s something wrong with them, that they’ve failed in some way. Once they understand it’s really just something that their brain is doing and not that they’re doing, they can be more empowered to participate without the shame or embarrassment or the other things that sometimes interfere with treatment.”


In addition to demonstrating that re-training the brain is much more feasible than previously imagined, modern neuroscience has also demonstrated via advanced imaging technology that not everybody struggling with a mental disorder has the same things happening in their brain. Many therapeutic methods over the years have taken a one-size-fits-all approach to treating mental illness, even though people with very similar symptoms may be experiencing vastly different neural and chemical reactions inside their brains. Dr. Hamlin continues, “One of the things we discovered quickly when we began to collect data on brain functioning is not everyone who has depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder has the same brain properties. By understanding what the properties are, you can actually design individualized treatment that will work best for that person’s brain.”


Avalon Hills has always believed in tailoring treatment plans to each individual patient and their unique needs, and as the leading privately held residential eating-disorder treatment facility in the United States, our commitment to utilizing the most advanced neuroscientific treatments available is an extension of that philosophy. Upon arriving at Avalon Hills, every patient undergoes a non-invasive electroencephalograph (EEG) that measures brain-wave activity. After consulting with a neurologist to interpret each individual’s results, the EEG data is then interpreted into a map of the patient’s brain-wave activity and compared against a normative database to determine any potential irregularities. As Dr. Hamlin explains, “What’s really interesting, when you’re going over the results of their map with someone…you almost always get to say at the end: ‘And guess what? There’s something we can do to change this.’”

After building their personalized brain map, each Avalon Hills patient then receives a completely customized neurofeedback program that utilizes simple focus exercises to re-program the brain by training it to operate within the ideal parameters for various brain-wave frequencies. Dr. Hamlin elaborates: “Once we’ve made the measurements of brain activity, then we can design programs to train the brain to be able to change the brain activity patterns that need to be changed. It’s like learning any other skill…it’s also very empowering. Once you learn that you can change the activity of your own brain, you can also assume you may be able to change your own activities in other aspects of your life.”


While neuroscience is just one component of the treatment received by patients at Avalon Hills, it’s a critical one due to how closely the health of a person’s mind and body are intertwined. And by improving the brain’s functioning, other forms of therapy become that much more effective. “We all really are trying to accomplish the same thing”, Dr. Hamlin says. “We’re trying to get the person to be better regulated in their physiology, as well as in their psychology. The training that we do with them is both to improve their regulation [of brain activity] and to improve their focus, so they can be more actively participating in the other aspects of their treatment.”

Eating disorders don’t materialize out of nowhere—they’re an end point brought on by underlying, untreated emotional and psychological trauma. Focusing on treating the whole person—from developing a healthy relationship with exercise and food to optimizing brain functioning to dealing with deep-seated issues—is the key to lasting success when recovering from an eating disorder. Dr. Hamlin summarizes, “The thing about Avalon Hills is they treat to outcome. The outcome they’re looking for is not that the person has to continue to struggle to manage their symptoms, but that the underlying cause of their symptoms has been changed…no other program that I’m aware of makes that kind of patient commitment.”