The Neurobiology and Temperament Traits of Anorexia

What have neurobiologists discovered about the differences in the brains of people with anorexia? To what degree might these discoveries about the neurobiology of anorexia lead to new treatments?

This was a question Bobbie, a listener from our community, wrote in to be answered on The Recovery Warrior Shows.

In our mission to help you learn from the best, we connected with Dr. Erin Parks and Kristina Saffran, co-founders of the virtual treatment provider Equip Health. They’re united in a shared mission to bring effective, affordable, and accessible care to everyone with an eating disorder. Equip uses an approach that blends science with the emotional reality of lived experience to provide treatment that works.

Whether you live with an eating disorder, or know a loved one who does – it’s important to understand the temperament and brain science behind it.

Anorexia & Neurobiology

Dr. Erin Parks explains that the brains of people with anorexia are wired a bit differently. Particularly with their risk and reward circuitry.

While most people are motivated through rewards, people with anorexia are motivated through consequences. Kristina gave an example of how the neurobiology of anorexia came into play in her own recovery.

She broke it down like this:

  • At first, her parents offered rewards like a big trip or a car to motivate her recovery.
  • Instead, they found more success by motivating her with consequences rather than rewards.
  • For example, Kristina was an academically motivated teen. So her parents warned her that if she didn’t eat breakfast, she would miss school.
  • This potential consequence was a more powerful motivator over any potential rewards.

While studies using brain imaging have confirmed that the brains of people with anorexia generally respond differently to rewards and consequences, it’s important to note that these findings apply to population averages. Not every individual with anorexia will fit this pattern exactly. Regardless, a quality treatment team can cater to what works best for your recovery.

Your Brain is NOT Broken

Erin wants to make it clear that there is nothing “wrong” or “damaged” about this type of brain circuitry. You are not irreparably damaged. In fact, it’s a good thing that eating disorders are brain based, because it helps clinicians come up with effective treatments.

When redirected and channeled appropriately, individuals can even harness many common traits found in the neurobiology of anorexia (such as high achievement orientation and perfectionism) for positive outcomes. Many careers value these qualities, and with proper guidance, you can use them to build a fulfilling life aligned with your values.

Eating disorder or not, our brains will always be wired a little differently than the person next to us. This is not a life sentence.

Dr. Erin Parks

The neurobiology of anorexia doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll suffer from an eating disorder forever. Rather, you can use these traits to create a better life.

The Role of the Neurobiology of Anorexia in Future Treatments

To review, neurobiologists have discovered significant differences in the brains of people with anorexia, particularly in their risk and reward circuitry. These findings have important implications for finding new treatments that work with, rather than against, the brain’s natural processes. Equip even runs their own in-house research to find the best treatment methods.

Let’s keep using what works, and continue to study this diverse population to find even more tools.

Kristina Saffran

By using brain science to create treatment plans, providers can help individuals with anorexia recover and lead fulfilling lives.

Click here to learn more about Equip.

Connect with Erin, Kristina, & Equip

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