Taste differences may drive anorexia

March 2, 2008 6:09:46 AM PST
Two new studies unlock secrets of the physical roots of eating disorder; and lead to better treatments.

Whether it's pasta so good you could eat it with your hands, or a tray of fresh pastries virtually screaming your name, most of us have a food we just can't resist.

But that's different for anorexics.

Sports journalist Karen Pearlman battled the eating disorder in her teens.

Looking back, Karen says, "I remember eating a lot of gum. And not really caring about what I are - just the least amount possible."

Dr. Walter Kaye, a psychiatrist and specialist in eating disorders at the University of California-San Diego, wanted to find out what's different about the food experience for those like Karen.

Using MRI scanners to study brain activity, Dr. Kaye & his colleagues found that former anorexics had less activity in the brain area that recognizes taste.

He explains it this way, "Food may not be as rewarding as it is to people without an eating disorder. And this may very well explain why they're able to not eat. They don't enjoy the taste of food the same way others do. Because they aren't driven by tastes, they don't eat, and lose so much weight."

Karen hopes the findings increase not only understanding of the roots of anorexia, but compassion toward those with it. She adds, "I think it's a very misunderstood and, debilitating illness."

Dr. Kaye, who has studied anorexia for 30 years, believes understanding the physical basis is a must. Right now, anorexia has the highest death rate of any psychiatric disorder.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, and the Price Foundation.