Neuroscience & Eating Disorders

Monday, Dec 14  •  


While the core treatment of eating disorders remains based on psychotherapy, behavioral modifications, and close medical management, we are discovering more and more about the science and brain functioning of individuals suffering from an eating disorder. The complex thought processes associated with an eating disorder often mystify and confuse both the patient and other outsiders including family, friends, and treatment providers. Today, neuroscientists are learning more and more about how the brain is affected by an eating disorder, and in turn, affects the course and prognosis of the disorder. 

Thoughts originate in the brain. We can tell when one is thinking or processing information when we are able to evaluate brain data and signals with medical equipment such as CAT scans, electroencephalographs (EEG), and MRIs. While we can see signals from the brain, we can’t see actual thoughts. When individuals suffer from an eating disorder, we know because of what they tell us and how they behave that their thoughts are distressful, distorted, and overwhelming. Individuals with an eating disorder have a certain way in which they hear things, say things, perceive things, and do things. The brain is acting in a way that is not familiar. 

Neuroscientists have been making significant discoveries in finding out how and why the brain is working differently. For example, with conditions such as anorexia, neuroimaging has shown that there is a loss of brain cells in many different regions of the brain. They are still trying to decipher how this brain cell loss affects thoughts and behaviors associated with an eating disorder and how much of these brain cells can be restored with recovery. In one study, researchers discovered that in anorexia, there can be cell loss in the brain’s parietal lobe region which is directly associated with one’s internal thoughts that create an intense drive to be thin. 

Upon arriving at Avalon Hills, every patient undergoes an 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. 

After building their personalized brain map, each Avalon Hills patient then receives a completely customized neurofeedback program. Neurofeedback is completely non-invasive and involves tailoring brain exercises to help people learn to regulate their emotions and gain control over their attention and focus in ways that can lead to improved functioning, a more positive emotional state, and enhanced peace of mind.

It has been proven that displaying this pattern in the brain and better understanding the way it functions empowers the individual and assists in overcoming self-defeating patterns such as eating disorders. 

There is no simple explanation as to why eating disorders occur and no simple solution to a quick resolution. The brain is complex and is continuously affected when an eating disorder is present. Avalon Hills leads the residential eating disorders field in working with neurofeedback as part of an integrated approach to the treatment of eating disorders. Trying to understand the way the brain functions and helping our clients better understand their mind is one more way in which we strive to help patients narrow the gap between how they’re living their lives and how they want to be living their lives.