Anorexia is a pervasive and deadly disease, one that has as much to do with brain chemistry as it does with the perpetual stream of ever thinning bodies in magazines and media. Eating disorders are alarmingly common among young women, and young men too. Up to 24 million people in the United States, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders estimates, have struggled with an eating disorder. Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among teenagers, ANAD reports, and is associated with a high mortality rate. It’s something that’s all around us, hidden in plain sight.
But the struggle against eating disorders may have a new, radical tool for extreme cases. Deep Brain Stimulation—that is, electrodes implanted in the brain that deliver pulses of electricity to certain regions of the neural cortex—is a treatment that has proved effective to help some anorectics recover. In a detailed look at the disease and DBS for Aeon magazine, writer Kenneth Miller interviews a young woman named Brenda who tried DBS to help overcome anorexia.
Brenda went through years of traditional treatment for the disorder, which at one point put her at 79 pounds, but after little success she agreed to be a part of a small study on DBS at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre.
“Deep-brain stimulation works like a heart pacemaker,” Miller explains. “By delivering a regular electrical pulse to misfiring nerve calls, it helps them fall into a steady, coordinated rhythm.”
Brenda initially had technical difficulties with the implantation post surgery, but eventually found a decrease in anxiety and obsessiveness around food. She began putting on weight, recovering, and becoming involved in activities that she loves again.
“I was much more open with everybody about how I was really feeling,” she told Miller. “I was very honest with myself.” According to Miller, she’s reached a healthy weight and hasn’t been hospitalized since.
Not everyone has had such positive results. Out of six women who took part in a DBS study, one had no improvements, one suffered from a seizure, and another had a panic attack when the device was implanted, according to a 2013 report from the BBC. Three others did see improvements, however.
It should be noted, those who participated in the study “had reached the limits of conventional treatment. . . [and were] therefore at the greatest risk of death from the condition,” Dr Nir Lipsman, lead author of the Krembil Neuroscience Centre study, told the BBC..
“It is not a miracle,” another DBS patient added. “I have to put a lot of work into changing my thinking and I go to therapy and see a dietitian. But it has enabled everything to be much easier for me.”
The efficacy of DBS is still being tested. Currently, the study that Brenda participated in has entered a second phase to look at a larger group of patients. But if fine-tuned, the surgery could provide help for the thousands of people who live every day with an eating disorder, at war with their own bodies. It’s a glimmer of hope in the distance, but it’s still there.
Featured image via Shutterstock