DALLAS – Before their brains are scanned and studied, patients being treated for anorexia at the Center for Brain Health will likely be asked if they're nice. Do they think they have frizzy hair? Does their friend think their teeth are white?
Simple as they may sound, doctors say this self-reflective series of questions trigger certain brain reponses that are visible when the organ is scanned. And once they see that, anorexia becomes easier to understand and treat.
“Brain imaging allows us to make a biological statement about your internal thinking,” said Dan Krawczyk with the Center for Brain Health.
Meaning, therapies can be better guided and tracked for progress depending on how the brain reacts. The scans give hard evidence. A healthy brain scan has red spots on it, indicating blood flow during the self-judgment questions.
“My friend thinks that I am nice, I remember thinking to myself, maybe my friend doesn't think I am nice? Just second guessing myself constantly through the questionnaires,” said Kelli Lax.
Lax, a mother of two with another on the way, is recovering from anorexia. She fought it for 10 years.
“There were times when I would go nine weeks, that was my longest without eating anything whatsoever, I just drank juice once day,” she said.
Through treatments, Lax connected with the Center for Brain Health to help research the genetic component of her illness. Lax’s brain shows little blood flow during the exercise.
But after two years since her initial recovery, scans show better blood flow, and therefore improvement, doctors say.
“So we're measuring blood flow but we're measuring how it changes depending on their thoughts,” said Dr. Carrie McAdams with UT Southwestern.
For her and Dr. Dan Krawczyk with the Center for Brain Health, this is a first: They’re pinpointing brain pathways directly related to anorexia. It's not just about food.
“They just think it is all about body image, but that is not the case whatsoever, it has a lot to do with the balance of the brain,” said Lax.
“There is a lot going on when the people with anorexia think about themselves but it is not happening in the area of the brain where these questions are answered in healthy people,” said Dr. McAdams.
But now that researchers have targeted the area where anorexic women process self-identity, there is hope to retrain the brain.
“Just because this region wasn't working at one point doesn't mean it will never work,” McAdams said.