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Towards a neurobiological susceptibility model for the development of eating disorders

Principal Investigator:
  • Lindsay Bodell, Western University
  • Azrieli Foundation

Project Overview

Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that usually begin during adolescence. Unfortunately, these illnesses often become harder to treat and lead to more health problems the longer they are left untreated. Therefore, it is important to identify and treat eating disorders early to minimize their negative consequences. It is known that social pressures to be thin are related to eating disorders, but most people do not develop eating disorders even when they are exposed to these pressures. However, few researchers have looked at why some people are more susceptible to developing eating disorders than others. We propose that some peoples’ brains may be more responsive to the social environment than others. This brain response pattern may make an individual more vulnerable to eating disorders if they are in “high risk” environments like receiving negative comments about their weight or appearance or having friends who diet. However, this same brain response (i.e., being neurally sensitive to one’s environment) may make someone resilient to eating disorders if they are in “low risk” environments where there are fewer pressures to change one’s body size or appearance. To test these ideas, adolescent girls with or without eating disorders will complete a functional magnetic resonance imaging task that will assess how their brains respond to social feedback. We will examine whether girls with or without eating disorders differ on this task and whether specific brain response patterns relate to eating disorder severity. We also will examine whether social pressures to be thin influence the relationship between brain responses and eating disorder symptoms. This research will improve our knowledge on how and why eating disorders develop, which will help us improve the prevention and treatment of eating disorders in the future.