How the brain differs in children with binge eating disorder

How the brain differs in children with binge eating disorder
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New research looks at the differences in brain scans of children aged nine to ten years old with a binge eating disorder.

Binge eating disorder affects around 3-5% of the US population and is characterised by frequent episodes of consuming large amounts of food and the sense of feeling out of control over this behaviour. The research, carried out by Keck School of Medicine of USC, found that abnormal development in the brain’s centres for reward and inhibition may play a key role in these behaviours.

“In children with binge eating disorder, we see abnormality in brain development in brain regions specifically linked to reward and impulsivity, or the ability to inhibit reward,” said lead author Stuart Murray, Della Martin Associate Professor of Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, where he serves as director of the Eating Disorders Program.

“These kids have a very, very heightened reward sensitivity, especially toward calorically dense, high-sugar foods. The findings underscore the fact that this is not a lack of discipline for these kids.”

The research was published in the journal Psychiatry Research.

Studying brain scans in children with binge eating disorder

The research team analysed brain scans and other data from a large longitudinal study called the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development Study; the research encapsulates data from 11,875 children aged between nine- and ten-year-olds who were enrolled in 2016-2018 and recruited from 21 locations around the US. The study utilised scans of 71 children with diagnosed binge eating disorder and 74 children without binge eating disorder to identify any brain differences within these groups.

In the children with binge eating disorder, the researchers found elevations in grey matter density in areas that are typically ‘pruned’ during healthy brain development. Synaptic pruning, a development phase that occurs between ages two and ten, eliminates synapses that are no longer used, making the brain more efficient. Disturbed synaptic pruning is linked to several psychiatric disorders.

“This study suggests to me that binge eating disorder is wired in the brain, even from a very, very early age,” Murray said. “The question that we don’t know, which is something that we will address in time, is whether successful treatment of binge eating disorder in kids helps correct brain development. The prognosis of almost all psychiatric diseases is better if you can treat them in childhood.”

The impact of the pandemic on children

It is well recorded that the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant effect on children, with factors such as social isolation, stress and disruption to routine causing a considerable change in day-to-day life. Experts noted that eating disorders in young people increased during the pandemic, resulting in a heightened number of hospitalisations.

Binge eating disorder puts people at risk for obesity, metabolic syndrome, abnormal cardiac function, and suicidal thoughts. Treatment goals include reducing the frequency of binge eating episodes by removing “trigger” foods, as well as addressing underlying anxiety or depression. Treatment with medication and talk therapy is effective about only half the time, Murray said.


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