Stimulating parts of the brain with magnetic fields appears to reduce symptoms and improve decision-making in people with anorexia nervosa, according to the findings of new study we conducted at King’s College London.
Anorexia is associated with a morbid fear of fatness, extreme food restriction and dangerously low body weight. About 4 per cent of women will suffer from anorexia at some point in their life. It has one of the highest mortality rates of all psychiatric illnesses, with about one in five people dying prematurely as a result of the disorder.
The longer a person suffers from anorexia, the more entrenched it becomes and the harder it is to treat. We desperately need new treatments. (Post continues after video)
Re-wiring the brain
Brain imaging studies show that people with anorexia have altered neurocircuitry. New treatments that target these neural pathways are urgently needed. In our study, we investigated the potential of a non-invasive brain stimulation technique called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) in improving symptoms of anorexia.
rTMS has been approved by NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) for treating depression. It has also shown potential in reducing symptoms of eating disorders. It’s safe, relatively painless and is very rarely associated with severe side-effects.
rTMS applies magnetic pulses to the brain and these pulses are able to alter neural activity. The therapeutic effects of rTMS in psychiatric disorders are thought to occur as a result of “neuroplasticity” – the malleable nature of the brain. The gentle magnetic stimulation helps the brain form new neural connections.
For our research, we got 49 people with anorexia to complete food exposure and decision-making tasks, both before and after a single session of either real or placebo rTMS. The rTMS was applied to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain thought to be involved in some of the self-regulation difficulties associated with anorexia. Symptoms and decision-making were measured immediately before and after rTMS, and symptoms of anorexia were also measured 20 minutes and 24 hours after the session.