Brain implant treats severe eating disorders

New surgery provides hope for anorexia treatment
Alexa Giorgi

A groundbreaking new treatment providing deep brain stimulation can improve the health of patients with Anorexia Nervosa, according to new research from the University of Toronto, Krembil Neuroscience Centre and the University Health Network.

“Eating disorders have the highest death rate of any mental illness and more and more women are dying from anorexia,” says Professor Blake Woodside in U of T’s Department of Psychiatry and medical director of Canada’s largest eating disorders program at Toronto General Hospital.

“Any treatment that could potentially change the natural course of this illness is not just offering hope but saving the lives for people who suffer from the extreme form of this condition.”

This new research suggests that deep brain stimulation (DBS) may help patients with chronic, severe and treatment-resistant Anorexia Nervosa improve their body weight, mood, and anxiety.

Researchers treated six chronically anorexic patients with DBS, a neurosurgical procedure that moderates activity of dysfunctional brain circuits. Brain imaging has shown that anorexia patients and healthy people have structural and functional differences in brain circuits that regulate mood, anxiety, reward and body-perception.

Patients – who suffered from anorexia for 18 years on average - were awake when researchers implanted electrodes into the part of their brain involved with emotion and depression. During the procedure, researchers stimulated the electrodes to look for changes in the patient’s mood, anxiety or adverse effects. The electrodes were connected to an implanted pulse generator below each patients’ right clavicle, similar to a heart pacemaker.

Researchers tested patients one, three, and six months after activating the pulse generator devices. The team found that half of the patients gained more weight than they’d ever gained in the past. For these patients, this was the longest period of sustained weight gain since the onset of their illness.

“We are truly ushering in a new of era of understanding of the brain and the role it can play in certain neurological disorders,” says Andres Lozano, Professor and Chairman of Neurosurgery at U of T and neurosurgeon at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre of Toronto Western Hospital. “By pinpointing and correcting the precise circuits in the brain associated with the symptoms of some of these conditions, we are finding additional options to treat these illnesses.”

Several videos featuring the work of Lozano, Woodside and study participant Kim Rollins are available on Vimeo using the password "nervosa" and the fully study is available in the online version of The Lancet.