UCLA Health is an academic medical center that encompasses many hospitals and a widespread primary care network in Los Angeles. A new study conducted by them revealed that people with Anorexia nervosa and body dysmorphic disorder have similar abnormalities in their brains that hampers their ability to process visual information.
Anorexia refers to an intense fear of gaining weight that results in the person starving themselves even when they are dangerously thin.
Body dysmorphia refers to a psychiatric condition described by an obsessive preoccupation with a perceived flaw in physical appearance.
The researchers discovered that people with these disorders experienced abnormal activity in the visual cortex of the brain when the brain sorted global information or images as a whole compared to tiny details. Earlier research on body dysmorphic disorder has displayed the same type of abnormal activity in the visual cortex, but the UCLA study became the first to link the locations of the abnormal brain activity with periods starting as early as one-tenth of a second after an image is viewed.
The researchers used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to identify regional abnormalities in visual processing, and electroencephalography, or EEG, to evaluate the timeline for how the brain processes those signals. Then, they compared results for 15 people with anorexia nervosa, 15 people with body dysmorphic disorder and 15 healthy individuals. Anorexia nervosa typically develops in adolescence and can lead to cardiovascular or electrolyte disturbances severe enough to require hospitalization, social withdrawal, and even death. Individuals having body dysmorphic disorder view themselves as ugly and disfigured, even though they look ordinary to others. They tend to focus on minute details on their faces or bodies and let it consume them.
The distress related to their appearance can result in anxiety, depression, shame, and severe functional impairment, which can lead to hospitalization and even suicide. The researchers discovered that people with body dysmorphic disorder displayed less activity in the regions of the brain that communicate primarily global information, and this effect appeared in smaller regions in those with anorexia. The fact that the results were documented while people were viewing other people’s faces and images of houses proposes that this may be a more general abnormality in visual processing
The researchers also found that individuals with body dysmorphic disorder displayed greater activity in the areas of the brain that process detailed information. Fascinatingly, the more activity they had in these detail-processing regions, the less attractive they perceived the faces to be, recommending a connection with distorted perceptions of appearance. Both differences were linked to electrical activity ensuing within the first 200 milliseconds after the person viewed an image. The questions that these results ensue are being answered with more studies each day.