Biomarker for anorexia discovered
Australian and Canadian researchers have discovered what they believe is the first biomarker for anorexia nervosa. Biomarkers are typically used in the detection and treatment of physical illnesses but have never before been used in mental disorders.
Anorexia nervosa is a life-threatening eating disorder that generally begins in early adolescence. It is often secretive and associated with persistent denial of symptoms and resistance to treatment. For this reason, it has the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses, being hard to diagnose and even harder to treat.
Dr Andrea Phillipou, Head of the Swinburne Anorexia Nervosa (SWAN) Research Group, found that a combination of a type of atypical, twitching eye movement called ‘square wave jerks’, together with anxiety, is a promising two-element biomarker for anorexia nervosa. Square wave jerks were observed in people currently with anorexia nervosa, people who had recovered and sisters of people with anorexia nervosa. The finding in sisters is critical, because it reveals there is likely a genetic, inherited link.
“Eye movements use very specific brain regions, so when we see these types of atypical eye movements, we have a pretty good idea about which brain areas are not working the way they should,” Dr Phillipou said.
“These areas are also involved in other functions related to anorexia nervosa — such as body image — so it gives us an idea of which brain areas we could target with treatments such as non-invasive brain stimulation.”
Biomarkers are present regardless of illness state, as a person’s body is genetically pre-programmed for various outcomes — some better than others. With more research, Dr Phillipou said, her team hopes they’ll be able to use their newly discovered biomarker as a screening tool to identify people who may be at risk of developing anorexia nervosa.
“If we’re able to do this, we’ll be able to implement things to help prevent people developing the condition in the first place,” she said.
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