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Brain Stimulation for Eating Disorders

January 1, 2014

An experimental treatment for bulimia nervosa may help restore connections within the brain that influence eating behavior in some patients.



Bulimia and the brain. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Transcranial_magnetic_stimulation Eric Wassermann, M.D. NIH Public domain

A schematic of transcranial magnetic stimulation. (Credit: Eric Waserman/NIH)

Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, or rTMS, can help relieve depression in some people. Now, researchers at Toronto Western Hospital are testing whether rTMS can treat eating disorders like bulimia nervosa. In a preliminary study, clinician scientist Jonathan Downar and his team administered rTMS to an area of the brain involved in self-control in 20 patients. Half of them responded really well, with some ceasing to binge altogether. But half responded poorly. Downar attributes this to differences in brain connectivity.

JONATHAN DOWNAR (Toronto Western Hospital):

Turns out the ones who are getting better are missing a connection between that self-control area of the frontal lobe, and the brain’s so-called reward circuit. So by applying the rTMS, we’re kind of restoring that connection, so they’re


The next step is to test rTMS on a larger group of patients in a controlled study. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.