Women With Bulimia Have Different Neural Reactions When They Are Shown Pictures of Food

A new study by researchers at the University of Georgia and George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, finds that the brains of women who have bulimia nervosa react differently when the women are shown images of food. It is the first research to examine neural reactions to food cues following extreme stress in women with eating disorders, said Sarah Fischer, an associate professor of psychology at George Mason University.

Brain scans of bulimics showed decreased blood flow in the precuneus, the area of the brain responsible for self-reflection, when the women were shown pictures of high-sugar and high-fat foods after a stressful event — in this case, being asked to solve an impossible math problem. Researchers were surprised to find the same region of the brain showed increased blood flow in women without bulimia when they were shown the same pictures after a stressful event.

The decreased blood flow for bulimics shows that they may be using food as way to stave off negative self-thoughts, Fischer said. “Most people who binge eat, binge eat after stress,” Fischer said. “It’s not necessarily that you don’t have will power. There is something going on in the brain.”

Dr. Fischer joined the faculty at George Mason University in 2012 after teaching for five years at the University of Georgia. She holds a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, all from the University of Kentucky.

The full study, “The Impact of Acute Stress on the Neural Processing of Food Cues in Bulimia Nervosa: Replication in Two Samples” was recently published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. The study can be downloaded by clicking here.

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