New Study on the Brain Highlights Why Women May be More Vulnerable to Eating Disorders

Eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia have generally been associated more with women than with men, even though, until recently, no research had been performed to determine if women were actually physically more vulnerable to them. Instead, it was generally assumed that pressures from society to have a thin body were much higher in women than they were on men and this was the reason that women were more susceptible.

Statistically, women are a lot more likely to have an eating disorder. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, there are 30 million people in the U.S. who have an eating disorder and 20 million of these people are women.

It may be that social pressures are greater on women than they are on men and that these play a significant role in causing more eating disorders in women. However, previous studies have indicated that it is possible that people who have eating disorders, particularly anorexia, have a false impression of the size of their body – they think that it is bigger than it actually is. This led a team of researchers from York University in the United Kingdom, led by Dr. Catherine Preston, to further investigate the role of the brain in eating disorders. Their findings, published in the journal ‘Cerebral Cortex’ suggest that there could be a neurological explanation for the difference in the prevalence of eating disorders between the sexes.

During their research, the team assessed 32 participants, of whom 16 were male and 16 female. They were all healthy and none of them had any history of eating disorders. They were each given a virtual reality headset, which gave them the impression that their bodies were either much larger or much smaller than they actually were. They were also poked with a stick to increase the effects of the illusion. As the experiment was being conducted, the participants were having their brain activity measured using magnetic reasoning imaging (MRI).

When the participants were looking at their own bodies, which had been made to look obese to them, the researchers detected a direct link between activity in the part of the brain related to our perceptions about our body (the parietal lobe) and the part of our brain related to processing emotions such as anger, fear, and sadness (the anterior cingulate cortex). Moreover, the researchers found that this link was more pronounced in women than it was in men. Dr. Catherine Preston concludes that ‘This research is vital in revealing the link between body perception and our emotional responses regarding body satisfaction, and may help explain the neurobiological underpinnings of eating-disorder vulnerability in women.’

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