New insights on
Public misunderstanding of mental health disorders is nothing new. But for eating disorders in particular, misinformation abounds. “You still read more about anorexia in the
celebrity section of publications than in health sections,” says
Nancy Zucker, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience
at Duke University. “The emphasis is on it being a culturally
Even medical definitions of eating disorders have often
focused on external factors, including cultural pressures,
parents’ attitudes toward weight and diet, and stressful or
traumatic events that might trigger disordered eating habits.
While the environment certainly plays a part in shaping the
behaviors, evidence is mounting that eating disorders begin in
“Lots of people diet or want to lose weight, but relatively few
of them end up with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa,” says
Walter Kaye, MD, director of the Eating Disorders Treatment
and Research Program at the University of California, San
Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine.
In fact, fewer than 1 percent of women develop anorexia, the
more severe of those two diseases. “Culture plays some role —
but maybe less so than we thought in the past,” Kaye says.
Now, researchers including Kaye are beginning to sort out
the brain regions and neural circuits that underlie the illnesses.
For the millions of Americans who suffer from anorexia and
bulimia, it’s a welcome step toward better interventions for the
notoriously hard-to-treat illnesses.
“People die from these disorders,” Kaye says. “It’s critical
Scientists are uncovering the
faulty neurobiology behind
anorexia and bulimia, debunking
the myth that such eating
disorders are solely driven by
culture and environment.
By Kirsten Weir