Study: Prenatal stress could be linked to predisposition for anorexia

Johns Hopkins research suggests correlation between stress during early development, abnormal hunger signals in the brain

What's the relationship between stress and anorexia? Researchers from Johns Hopkins Medicine looked at rats in an attempts to find a link.

Their recent study discovered that rats are more prone to anorexia-like behavior if they're, first of all, exposed to prenatal stress, and secondly, more passive than proactive in their coping mechanisms.

Researchers are presenting their findings this week in Denver at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior. Study lead author Gretha Boersma, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, says the research could provide insight into why some people are more vulnerable to anorexia and also lead to individualized treatments for it.

"The results of this study suggest that we may be able to identify a subgroup of patients, those with a passive stress-coping style and a history of stress during early development, who might be highly vulnerable to anorexia when they start dieting," Boersma says.

The study found that when mother rats were stressed during pregnancy, their offspring lost weight faster and failed to turn on appropriate hunger signals in the brain under anorexia-like conditions, compared to rats born to non-stressed mothers.

The research also focused on stress-coping styles, finding that offspring rats most vulnerable to anorexic behavior had passive (rather than proactive) coping techniques, in addition to their stressed prenatal conditions. This population turned out to be most prone to severe weight loss, hyperactivity, and voluntary refusal to eat.

The rats were tested in environments that mimicked some of the physical and psychological features of anorexia, with limited eating time and access to a running wheel.

Researchers analyzed the results in terms of brain chemistry, looking at the signals for hunger that normally increase with food restriction. With the passive-coping rats that lost the most weight, researchers believe those hunger signals weren't turned up to where they should have been.

Read more from Hopkins Medicine

Posted in Health

Tagged eating disorders, stress