Eating Disorders: Low Levels of BDNF Suggests Biological Etiology

Eating disorders are frequently seen as psychological or societal diseases, but do they have an underlying biological cause? A new study shows that the levels of a brain protein differ between healthy and anorexic women.

Anorexia is a serious and potentially fatal eating disorder most commonly affecting women. Scientists do not yet understand the physical causes of anorexia, though some studies suggest a link to low levels of a brain protein called BDNF. BDNF stands for brain derived neurotrophic factor. This molecule, found in the brain’s fear hub could have a significant impact on the study of several anxiety disorders including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as on anorexia and bulimia.

Now, a study recommended by psychiatrist Cindy Bulik,  founder and director of the  UNC Eating Disorders Program shows that BDNF levels are higher in women who have recovered from anorexia. This suggests that low BDNF levels may be reversible.

Researchers at Chiba University in Japan found that anorexic women had lower levels of BDNF in their blood than healthy women or those who had recovered from anorexia. Women with low BDNF also had the lowest self-image, suffered from anxiety and depression, and performed poorly on certain tests of cognitive ability.

Further study is needed to determine what role BDNF plays in anorexia, and if it can be used to predict the risk of developing it, but Bulik forecasts that “…BDNF may emerge as a useful biomarker of [anorexia] and of recovery from [anorexia].