Researchers are unsure of the underlying causes and nature of eating disorders.
Unlike a neurological disorder, which generally can be pinpointed to a specific lesion on the brain, an eating disorder likely involves abnormal activity distributed across brain systems.
With increased recognition that mental disorders are brain disorders, more researchers are using tools from both modern neuroscience and modern psychology to better understand eating disorders.
One approach involves the study of the human genes. With the publication of the human genome sequence in 2003, behavioral health researchers are studying the various combinations of genes to determine if any DNA variations are associated with the risk of developing a mental disorder.
Neuroimaging, such as the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), may also lead to a better understanding of eating disorders. Neuroimaging already is used to identify abnormal brain activity in patients with schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. It may also help researchers better understand how people with eating disorders process information, regardless of whether they have recovered or are still in the throes of their illness.
Conducting behavioral or psychological research on eating disorders is even more complex and challenging. As a result, few studies of treatments for eating disorders have been conducted in the past. New studies currently underway, however, are aiming to remedy the lack of information available about treatment.
Researchers also are working to define the basic processes of the disorders, which should help identify better treatments. For example, is anorexia the result of skewed body image, self esteem problems, obsessive thoughts, compulsive behavior, or a combination of these? Can it be predicted or identified as a risk factor before drastic weight loss occurs, and therefore avoided?
These and other questions may be answered in the future as scientists and practitioners think of eating disorders as medical illnesses with certain biological causes. Researchers are studying behavioral questions, along with genetic and brain systems information, to understand risk factors, identify biological markers and develop medications that can target specific pathways that control eating behavior.
Finally, neuroimaging and genetic studies may also provide clues for how each person may respond to specific treatments.