Eating disorders are sometimes incorrectly viewed and labeled as a “lifestyle choice.” However, the truth is that there are many categories of eating disorders, each caused by specific biopsychosocial factors, including family history, social pressures, and hormonal imbalances. Additionally, a Psychology Today article states, “Culturally mediated body-image concerns and personality traits like perfectionism and obsessiveness…play a large role in eating disorders,” (Jacobs, 2016).
One of the main divides that exist between eating disorders and many other mental disorders is the inadequate amount of brain studies done about eating disorders. However, Harvard is now collaborating with the Foundation for Research and Education in Eating Disorders to uncover the relationship between eating disorders and the human brain by establishing a brain bank.
Titled the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, the bank will study the brains of deceased individuals with eating disorders to develop an understanding of the changes that may occur in the brain as a result of eating disorders.
“We don’t really have a lot of information on what kind of brain changes, what kind of underlying pathology may be not only contributing to brain disorders but also caused by brain disorders, as induced by an altered diet,” said Dr. Sabina Berretta, the bank’s scientific director, indicating that the study will provide a new perspective on eating disorders.
Similarly, Kevin St. P. McNaught, the executive director of the Foundation for Research and Education in Eating Disorders, said that the bank will allow researchers to “understand the brain wiring or structural changes in people with [eating disorders]” (Weintraub, 2018). According to McNaught, the brains of deceased individuals reveal significant cellular changes that are not shown by the brain scans of living individuals.
Although Harvard has a successful brain bank dedicated to neurological disorders, there are numerous complications attached to the establishment of a brain bank specific to eating disorders, many of which are expected to delay conclusive studies. According to Dr. Bretta, the bank will require at least 20 brains per the three major categories of eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. Additionally, because people register to make donations years before they die, it often takes a long time to acquire conclusive data. Furthermore, Dr. Wilson Woo, the medical director of Harvard’s brain bank, states that it is more difficult to attain the brains of individuals with psychiatric conditions, as opposed to neurological ones, because people with psychiatric conditions often distance themselves from their friends and family and are unable to receive information about donations (Weintraub, 2018).
Due to the misconceptions about eating disorders and the social criticism encountered by individuals who have eating disorders, only one in ten people will seek treatment for their struggles with an eating disorder (Jacobs). Given the low treatment rates and the significant threats such as hospitalization, physiological and psychological consequences, death, the destigmatization of eating disorders is clearly very important. The creation of the brain bank will provide more insight on eating disorders and may hopefully alleviate some of the misconceptions surrounding this category of mental illness.
“Eating Disorders,” (n.d.). The National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/eating-disorders/index.shtml.
“Eating Disorders,” (n.d.). Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/eating-disorders.
Jacobs, D.G. (2016, February 19). Eating Disorder Misconceptions. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/screening-health/201602/eating-disorder-misconceptions.
Weintraub, K. (2018, March 7). Harvard Brain Collection Will Help Scientists Dive Inside Eating Disorders. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/03/07/591512588/harvard-brain-collection-will-help-scientists-dive-inside-eating-disorders.