Gaining weight may also bulk up brain volume for anorexic women

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Anorexia nervosa takes a tremendous toll on the body. That includes brain volume, which may be reduced because of the disorder. But those deleterious effects could be reversed when anorexics gain weight, according a new study.

A study published online this month in the International Journal of Eating Disorders compared changes in brain volume among 32 adult women with anorexia nervosa and a control group made up of 21 healthy women. During the course of the study, the anorexic participants gradually gained weight. Brain volume was measured via MRI.

At the beginning of the study, the women with anorexia had less gray matter volume than the healthy controls. Gray matter is made up of densely packed neuron cell bodies. Those who had been ill the longest also had the lowest gray matter volume when they were underweight. Body mass index was not linked to gray matter volume.

When the anorexic women did gain weight, gray matter volume improved after several weeks, although it didn’t fully return to normal. Although researchers did not find substantial differences between the groups in the volume of white matter (parts of the brain and spinal cord that allow communication between gray matter neurons), white matter volume also improved as the anorexic women gained weight.


‘There is still plenty of research to be done,’ Christina Roberto of the Yale University department of psychology said in a news release. Roberto, lead author of the study, added, ‘We do not yet have a good sense of the clinical implications of these reductions in brain volume. It is unclear how brain volume deficits impact functioning, which specific regions of the brain are most affected or if these deficits are linked to how patients respond to treatment.’

-- Jeannine Stein