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‘Deep brain stimulation unlikely to be the answer for anorexia’ by Sam Thomas (MGEDT Founder and Director)

Scientists in Canada have recently suggested that deep brain stimulation (or ‘Electrode therapy’) could help people suffering from severe anorexia. Experts in the field may perceive this as a promising development in the treatment of the condition. However, in my opinion, these speculative claims are rather questionable to say the least…

As the Founder and Director of UK national charity Men Get Eating Disorders Too, it’s extremely worrying that electrode therapy is being promoted as an ‘effective’ treatment for anorexia. Whilst I agree studies like this are promising and ought to be debated, I’m highly dubious these latest claims hold any ‘weight’ as so to speak. Not only that, it’s concerning that false hope is being created based on the small number of sufferers that found this type of treatment to be beneficial based on minimal evidence of its effectiveness?

In the study published by the Lancet, a mere three people were able to gain weight and had improvements in their overall mood after undergoing the procedure. The researchers say larger trials are now needed to show whether this therapy could provide a last resort for people with ‘difficult-to-treat’ anorexia.

For the first time researchers have implanted the device into brains of people with such advanced anorexia. They treated six women, aged between 24 and 57, for whom most conventional therapy had failed .The researchers chose to implant the electrodes in an area of the brain which influences how people regulate their mood and anxiety. They then switched on the device to deliver continuous electrical stimulation over the nine months of the study.

One of the participants involved said on BBC News the treatment had proven effective for them. She said: “At first I was sceptical – it is neurosurgery after all. But I was reassured by the physicians. It has really turned my life around. I am now at a healthy weight. I was exercising non-stop all day with minimal food before.

Over a few months I gradually noticed I wasn’t thinking about exercise all the time. And I can enjoy meals with my family now.

But it is not a miracle. I have to put a lot of work into changing my thinking and I go to therapy and see a dietician. But it has enabled everything to be much easier for me.”

Lead author of the research, Dr Nir Lipsman, said this was not a study about simply flipping a switch to make people eat more. He said: “Anorexia nervosa has many layers and we need to address the root causes. In many people with the condition this is related to difficulties in regulating mood and anxiety.

“So we wanted to see if influencing this area of the brain could help people with the condition.”

Deep brain stimulation – which involves implanting electrodes into the brain – has previously been used for people with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and obsessive compulsive disorder. Are these medical conditions comparable with eating disorders? I’m not so sure – my feeling is the researchers are ‘jumping on the bandwagon.’

In recent times, it’s been argued that biology supposedly influences the development of eating disorders. However, extensive research needs to be undertaken to ascertain this to be the case.

A service-user of MGEDT commented regarding the article: “I think the big issue is that things like this shouldn’t be discussed until they are studied in a wider berth. It gives as has been said ‘false hope’.

Most sufferers would love a ‘quick fix’ to this, and things like this kind of imply that they are just that. It also doesn’t address the bigger picture as has been said, while we should be helping sufferers like myself now, the focus now should be on looking at ‘why’ and ‘how can we stop this’.”

Too often studies like these dwell on the simplification of eating disorders, which totally undermines their complexity – both in their nature and treatment.

Neil Holmes, MGEDT Chairman, re-affirmed this point by saying: “What concerns me is the suggestion that the disorder is a result of an in-balance in the brain, which a medical intervention can somehow either re-adjust or even cure. As we all know the psycho/social context for the person will also need to be understood and worked with, if real insight and understanding is to occur.”

Instead, there needs to be more focus on understanding on the diverse range of potential causes/contributing factors leading to eating disorders rather than fixating in the most current ‘trend’ in regards to latest research.

'Men Get Eating Disorders Too' is a registered charity in England and Wales no. 1139351.

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