Friday, August 10, 2012

Anorexia nervosa, neurobiology, and family-based treatment

Via Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit: Sandra Mann
By Harriet Brown, DXS contributor

Back in 1978, psychoanalyst Hilde Bruch published the first popular book on anorexia nervosa. In The Golden Cage, she described anorexia as a psychological illness caused by environmental factors: sexual abuse, over-controlling parents, fears about growing up, and/or other psychodynamic factors. Bruch believed young patients needed to be separated from their families (a concept that became known as a “parentectomy”) so therapists could help them work through the root issues underlying the illness. Then, and only then, patients would choose to resume eating. If they were still alive.

Bruch’s observations dictated eating-disorders treatments for decades, treatments that led to spectacularly ineffective results. Only about 35% of people with anorexia recovered; another 20% died, of starvation or suicide; and the rest lived with some level of chronic illness for the rest of their lives.

Not a great track record, overall, and especially devastating for women, who suffer from anorexia at a rate of 10 times that of men. Luckily, we know a lot more about anorexia and other eating disorders now than we did in 1978.

“It’s Not About the Food”
In Bruch’s day, anorexia wasn’t the only illness attributed to faulty parenting and/or trauma. Therapists saw depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and homosexuality (long considered a psychiatric “illness”) as ailments of the mind alone. Thanks to the rising field of behavioral neuroscience, we’ve begun to untangle the ways brain circuitry, neural architecture, and other biological processes contribute to these disorders. Most experts now agree that depression and anxiety can be caused by, say, neurotransmitter imbalances as much as unresolved emotional conflicts, and treat them accordingly. But the field of eating-disorders treatment has been slow to jump on the neurobiology bandwagon. When my daughter was diagnosed with anorexia in 2005, for instance, we were told to find her a therapist and try to get our daughter to eat “without being the food police,” because, as one therapist informed us, “It’s not about the food.”

Actually, it is about the food. Especially when you’re starving. 

Ancel Keys’ 1950 Semi-Starvation Study tracked the effects of starvation and subsequent re-feeding on 36 healthy young men, all conscientious objectors who volunteered for the experiment. Keys was drawn to the subject during World War II, when millions in war-torn Europe - especially those in concentration camps - starved for years. One of Keys’ most interesting findings was that starvation itself, followed by re-feeding after a period of prolonged starvation, produced both physical and psychological symptoms, including depression, preoccupation with weight and body image, anxiety, and obsessions with food, eating, and cooking—all symptoms we now associate with anorexia. Re-feeding the volunteers eventually reversed most of the symptoms. However, this approach proved to be difficult on a psychological level, and in some ways more difficult than the starvation period. These results were a clear illustration of just how profound the effects of months of starvation were on the body and mind.

Alas, Keys’ findings were pretty much ignored by the field of eating-disorders treatment for 40-some years, until new technologies like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and research gave new context to his work. We now know there is no single root cause for eating disorders. They’re what researchers call multi-factorial, triggered by a perfect storm of factors that probably differs for each person who develops an eating disorder. “Personality characteristics, the environment you live in, your genetic makeup—it’s like a cake recipe,” says Daniel le Grange, Ph.D., director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of Chicago. “All the ingredients have to be there for that person to develop anorexia.”

One of those ingredients is genetics. Twenty years ago, the Price Foundation sponsored a project that collected DNA samples from thousands of people with eating disorders, their families, and control participants. That data, along with information from the 2006 Swedish Twin Study, suggests that anorexia is highly heritable. “Genes play a substantial role in liability to this illness,” says Cindy Bulik, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and director of the University of North Carolina’s Eating Disorders Program. And while no one has yet found a specific anorexia gene, researchers are focusing on an area of chromosome 1 that shows important gene linkages.

Certain personality traits associated with anorexia are probably heritable as well. “Anxiety, inhibition, obsessionality, and perfectionism seem to be present in families of people with an eating disorder,” explains Walter Kaye, M.D., who directs the Eating Disorders Treatment and Research Program at the University of California-San Diego. Another ingredient is neurobiology—literally, the way your brain is structured and how it works. Dr. Kaye’s team at UCSD uses fMRI technology to map blood flow in people’s brains as they think of or perform a task. In one study, Kaye and his colleagues looked at the brains of people with anorexia, people recovered from anorexia, and people who’d never had an eating disorder as they played a gambling game. Participants were asked to guess a number and were rewarded for correct guesses with money or “punished” for incorrect or no guesses by losing money.

Participants in the control group responded to wins and losses by “living in the moment,” wrote researchers: “That is, they made a guess and then moved on to the next task.” But people with anorexia, as well as people who’d recovered from anorexia, showed greater blood flow to the dorsal caudate, an area of the brain that helps link actions and their outcomes, as well as differences in their brains’ dopamine pathways. “People with anorexia nervosa do not live in the moment,” concluded Kaye. “They tend to have exaggerated and obsessive worry about the consequences of their behaviors, looking for rules when there are none, and they are overly concerned about making mistakes.” This study was the first to show altered pathways in the brain even in those recovered from anorexia, suggesting that inherent differences in the brain’s architecture and signaling systems help trigger the illness in the first place.

Food Is Medicine
Some of the best news to come out of research on anorexia is a new therapy aimed at kids and teens. Family-based treatment (FBT), also known as the Maudsley approach, was developed at the Maudsley Hospital in London by Ivan Eisler and Christopher Dare, family therapists who watched nurses on the inpatient eating-disorders unit get patients to eat by sitting with them, talking to them, rubbing their backs, and supporting them. Eisler and Dare wondered how that kind of effective encouragement could be used outside the hospital.

Their observations led them to develop family-based treatment, or FBT, a three-phase treatment for teens and young adults that sidesteps the debate on etiology and focuses instead on recovery. “FBT is agnostic on cause,” says Dr. Le Grange. During phase one, families (usually parents) take charge of a child’s eating, with a goal of fully restoring weight (rather than get to the “90 percent of ideal body weight” many programs use as a benchmark). In phase two, families gradually transfer responsibility for eating back to the teen. Phase three addresses other problems or issues related to normal adolescent development, if there are any.

FBT is a pragmatic approach that recognizes that while people with anorexia are in the throes of acute malnourishment, they can’t choose to eat. And that represents one of the biggest shifts in thinking about eating disorders. The DSM-IV, the most recent “bible” of psychiatric treatment, lists as the first symptom of anorexia “a refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height.” That notion of refusal is key to how anorexia has been seen, and treated, in the past: as a refusal to eat or gain weight. An acting out. A choice. Which makes sense within the psychodynamic model of cause.

But it doesn’t jibe with the research, which suggests that anorexia is more of an inability to eat than a refusal. Forty-five years ago, Aryeh Routtenberg, then (and still) a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, discovered that when he gave rats only brief daily access to food but let them run as much as they wanted on wheels, they would gradually eat less and less, and run more and more. In fact, they would run without eating until they died, a paradigm Routtenberg called activity-based anorexia (ABA). Rats with ABA seemed to be in the grip of a profound physiological imbalance, one that overrode the normal biological imperatives of hunger and self-preservation. ABA in rats suggests that however it starts, once the cycle of restricting and/or compulsive exercising passes a certain threshold, it takes on a life of its own. Self-starvation is no longer (if it ever was) a choice, but a compulsion to the death.

That’s part of the thinking in FBT. Food is the best medicine for people with anorexia, but they can’t choose to eat. They need someone else to make that choice for them. Therapists don’t sit at the table with patients, but parents do. And parents love and know their children. Like the nurses at the Maudsley Hospital, they find ways to get kids to eat. In a sense, what parents do is outshout the anorexia “voice” many sufferers report hearing, a voice in their heads that tells them not to eat and berates them when they do. Parents take the responsibility for making the choice to eat away from the sufferer, who may insist she’s choosing not to eat but who, underneath the illness, is terrified and hungry.

The best aspect of FBT is that it works. Not for everyone, but for the majority of kids and teens. Several randomized controlled studies of FBT and “treatment as usual” (talk therapy without pressure to eat) show recovery rates of 80 to 90 percent with FBT—a huge improvement over previous recovery rates. A study at the University of Chicago is looking at adapting the treatment for young adults; early results are promising.

The most challenging aspect of FBT is that it’s hard to find. Relatively few therapists in the U.S. are trained in the approach. When our daughter got sick, my husband and I couldn’t find a local FBT therapist. So we cobbled together a team that included our pediatrician, a therapist, and lots of friends who supported our family through the grueling work of re-feeding our daughter. Today she’s a healthy college student with friends, a boyfriend, career goals, and a good relationship with us.

A few years ago, Dr. Le Grange and his research partner, Dr. James Lock of Stanford, created a training institute that certifies a handful of FBT therapists each year. (For a list of FBT providers, visit the Maudsley Parents website.) It’s a start. But therapists are notoriously slow to adopt new treatments, and FBT is no exception. Some therapists find FBT controversial because it upends the conventional view of eating disorders and treatments. Some cling to the psychodynamic view of eating disorders despite the lack of evidence. Still, many in the field have at least heard of FBT and Kaye’s neurobiological findings, even if they don’t believe in them yet.

Change comes slowly. But it comes.

* * *
Harriet Brown teaches magazine journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications in Syracuse, New York. Her latest book is Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle with Anorexia (William Morrow, 2010).


  1. Thanks Harriet, Brilliant synopsis and I'm putting it right in there with my top articles for reference.

  2. Terrific article, Harriet. So glad you illustrated why "it is about the food." I'm passing this along.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this information. I'm going to discuss it with a friend whose teen is going through this.

  4. Thanks again Harriet. Your voice is clear and the message so important.

  5. Thanks for the valuable information you have shared. Only a few individuals know how serious these eating disorders are. With sufficient knowledge, this can be stopped and a lot of people, women in particular, can benefit from what you have shared. :)

  6. Thank you Harriet, this is the clearest and most concise description of FBT, backed up with the science that I have read thus far. Will share with therapists - including those who are being slow to adopt this model or who have never heard of it and are still saying, "If it weren't for pathological parents we wouldn't have eating disorders." Seriously, a therapist in Mid-town Manhattan said that to me after listening to Dr. Kaye and Dr. Treasure speak for 3 hours about neurobiology and eating disorders at the NEDA conference learning day in 2010.

    Fortunately since then I had the opportunity to help a family in Mid-town Manhattan find a therapist - I told them WHERE NOT to go.
    Becky Henry
    Hope Network, LLC

  7. I'm glad if this brief blog post can be helpful. Becky, there are some excellent FBT folks in the NYC area, especially Katharine Loeb at Mt. Sinai.

  8. brilliant and what I have come to learn from personal experience is right on. Harriet, you have been a hero to me and my family. i have reached out to you and you have generously responded with kindness and support. I am so very grateful for the knowledge and experience you share and the hope you impart.
    Blessings to you and yours.