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Scientific Developments and Research in Eating Disorders: Laying the Groundwork for Increasingly Effective Treatment

Article contributed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC, President @ Eating Disorder Hope and Crystal Karges, BS, DTR, CLEC, Special Projects Coordinator @ Eating Disorder Hope

The field of eating disorder research is continually evolving, and treatments are being developed and refined based on these discoveries. Given the complex nature of eating disorders, it is not surprising that the factors that contribute to these diseases are multifaceted.  There is not one single cause responsible for the formation and development of an eating disorder, but rather, an accumulation of several possible compounding factors that each play a role in the development and continuation of these diseases.  These factors can be biological, sociological, emotional, environmental, etc.

One factor frequently investigated by researchers is the biological component of eating disorders.  Many have pondered and theorized what mechanisms occur in the human body, specifically the brain, that can make an individual susceptible to developing anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder.  Studies are currently underway that are examining potential contributing factors of an eating disorder, such as genetics, hormones, and neurobiology.

Neurobiology and brain research, as it pertains to eating disorders in particular, is becoming an increasingly promising area of eating disorder study.  Researchers are uncovering new evidence that demonstrates how brain pathways function differently in individuals with eating disorders.  Other research studies in this field have shown how both appetite and energy expenditure are regulated by a highly complex network of nerve cells called neuropeptides.  These discoveries and research efforts in neurobiology are important to women and men suffering from eating disorders because health care professionals are gaining a better understanding as to what can be done to effectively treat these conditions.  These findings also validate that eating disorders are real diseases that require treatment.  Because of the stigma and misperceptions surrounding eating disorders, many people may not receive the help and support they need.  Understanding the possible biological connections with eating disorders brings these disorders into greater light:  Eating disorders are not simply a fabrication of one’s imagination or a desire to be thin – they are serious, life-threatening illnesses.

Several individuals are making great strides in neurobiology research as they continue to conduct studies that investigate eating disorders in a valuable perspective.  Some of these research investigators at the forefront of this field include Dr. Daniel Krawczyk, associate professor at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas, Dr. Carrie McAdams, assistant psychiatry professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center, and Dr. Walter Kaye, Director of University of California San Diego Eating Disorder Program.

Dr. Krawczyk and Dr. McAdams recently published a study in the journal, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, which showed that women with anorexia nervosa have different brain activity than those women without the eating disorder [1].  They are currently working on comparing how brain pathways function in currently ill and fully recovered individuals that have had anorexia nervosa, in the hopes of studying whether changes in these brain regions can be connected with recovery.

Dr. Kaye, who has authored more than 300 articles and publications, has made considerable progress in understanding the brain circuits that may contribute to symptoms such as altered body image and disturbed appetite regulation.  His findings, which were published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, are leading to a new understanding of why individuals suffer with eating disorders, as well as important clues necessary for developing more effectual treatments [2].

Understanding the causes, effects, and treatments of eating disorders are indeed complex; however, progressions in research are shedding light on these once misunderstood diseases, answering intricate questions, and bringing hope to eating disorder sufferers with promising outcomes.


  1.  Carrie J McAdams, MD, PhD and Daniel C Krawczyk, PhD.  Who am I?  How do I look?  Neural Differences in self-identify in anorexia nervosa.  Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 2012.  First published online: September 5, 2012.  DOI:10.1093/scan/nns093
  2. Kaye WH, Bailer UF.  Understanding the Neural Circuitry of Appetitive Regulation in Eating DisordersBiol Psychiatry. 2011 Oct 15; 0(8): 704-5.


Published Date: September 20, 2012
Last reviewed: By Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on September 20, 2012
Page last updated: November 7, 2012
Published on, Eating Disorders Help

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