Researchers discover a mechanism that could explain anorexia and its possible treatment
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that causes food deprivation for several months or even years. As scientists try to identify the mechanisms involved in the onset of this disorder, researchers have shed light on the role of a specific neurotransmitter. A discovery that could soon lead to drug treatment.
Anorexia nervosa is, along with bulimia and binge eating disorders, eating disorders. This severe psychiatric disorder is characterized by the restriction of food intake that leads to significant weight loss associated with an intense fear of gaining weight. The person who suffers from anorexia nervosa has the feeling of always being overweight and seeks to lose weight by all means. It mainly affects girls (at least 80% of cases) and the peak of onset of the disease is between 13-14 years and 16-17 years, but anorexia nervosa can also appear in childhood or in the adulthood.
To date, there is no specific drug or pharmacological treatment to combat this disease. This is because the neural mechanisms involved in anorexia nervosa are not yet well understood. In addition, this obsession with losing weight under the influence of psycho-behavioral factors makes anorexia nervosa a psychiatric pathology that requires specific care: treatment covers both the medical and psychological aspects of the disease. But researchers at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) recently demonstrated the essential role of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine in one part of the brain, the striatum.
"Dysfunctional mechanisms linked to habits"
The striatum participates in the regulation of locomotor activity or in the search for rewards. On the other hand, its role in the formation of our daily habits and our automatisms is less known. The study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation suggests the hypothesis that a decrease in acetylcholine in the striatum can lead to the formation of excessive habits that can lead to dietary restriction. The researchers also found that it was possible to compensate for low acetylcholine levels by administering a drug commonly used in the treatment of Alzheimers disease.
"This treatment has the effect of abolishing the pathological behaviors of the mice", explains the scientific team. The next step of the study was to work with researchers specialized in the care of people with eating disorders, in order to transfer the results obtained in mice to humans. "Thanks to neuropsychological tests, clinical investigations with cohorts of patients have already identified the profiles of severe anorexia nervosa affected by these dysfunctional mechanisms linked to habits."
A way to treat OCD too
This discovery is important since there is no proven pharmacological treatment for anorexia: therefore, this study opens a serious therapeutic objective. A first pilot study is expected to begin shortly, and the researchers hope to see results within a year or two. Furthermore, the latter conclude on the fact that beyond anorexia, "this discovery could be applied to pathologies that involve the creation of habits and compulsions such as addictions or obsessive and compulsive behaviors (OCD)". It should be noted that, according to Inserm, early treatment of anorexia nervosa is a decisive factor in healing.
In fact, the goals of care are to regain weight, treat psychological distress, and minimize social and relational consequences. "It is essential to involve the entourage in the care, especially the family, of minors but also of adults," Inserm specifies on this issue.