Are some girls wired for anorexia?

Quit blaming controlling mothers! A new study finds that brain development may make certain kids especially vulnerable to the eating disorder.

Published March 30, 2009 2:09PM (EDT)

Harriet Brown, a writer and journalism professor who began extensively researching causes and treatments of anorexia when her teenage daughter became seriously ill with the disease, wrote on her blog last week, "Most [eating disorder] patients and their families get smacked upside the head at some point with the old assumptions and stigmas about these illnesses. Such as: Eating disorders are caused by cold or overcontrolling mothers; the child has no other way to establish a sense of autonomy, so she stops eating." Although she notes that many doctors have moved away from that sort of thinking, Brown was recently shocked to learn one reason why it still persists: "A friend who's in med school, and who just finished the hour or two devoted to talking about eating disorders in the curriculum, reports that this outdated and discredited point of view is still in the textbooks." (Emphasis Brown's.)

Fortunately, new research from the UK may help put the "It's the mother's fault" theory to rest for good. Ian Frampton, a pediatric psychology consultant and co-author of a study to be presented at a conference at the Institute of Education in London this week, says, "Our research shows that certain kids' brains develop in such a way that makes them more vulnerable to the more commonly known risk factors for eating disorders, such as the size-zero debate, media representations of very skinny women and bad parents." The Guardian reports that based on "in-depth neuropsychological testing" on over 200 anorexia patients in the UK, US, and Norway, Frampton and his colleagues found "about 70% of the patients had suffered damage to their neurotransmitters, which help brain cells communicate with each other, had undergone subtle changes in the structure of their brains, or both." In the past, researchers often assumed that anorexia causes changes to sufferers' brains, but these findings suggest that it works the other way around.

The authors of the report say their work could lead to screening young girls for extreme susceptibility to the pressure to be thin,  thus enabling doctors and families to intervene before the potentially deadly mental illness has taken hold. Susan Ringwood, chief executive of the leading eating disorders' charity, Beat, notes, "It could pave the way for the first drugs to be developed to treat eating disorders, similar to the way that anti-depressants help rebalance the brain of people with depression." In the meantime, though, the study has at least one immediate benefit. Says Ringwood, "[I]t will help parents understand that they aren't to blame. Parents always blame themselves when their child develops an eating disorder. But what we are learning more and more from research in this area is that some people are very vulnerable to anorexia and that is down to genetic factors and brain chemistry, and not them trying to look like celebrity models or suffering a major traumatic event early in their lives." Now, if we could just get the medical textbooks to catch up.

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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