What is Neuroplasticity? Why can it help Eating Disorders?

Neuroplasticity is the natural ability of the brain to change its own structure in response to new situations, new behaviors or changes of the environment. Neuroplastic changes occur in a few different ways: by changing the neuronal connections, by sprouting new nerve endings and even by growing new neurons.

Neuro is for neuron, the nerve cells in our brains. Plastic is for "changeable, malleable, modifiable." Without operations or medications you can make use of the brain's amazing ability to change and transform your life in the direction you want. This ability can help you stop bad habits, change your feelings and cure many diseases including the most insidious ones like eating disorders.

For the past four hundred years this new thinking was inconceivable because mainstream medicine and science believed that brain anatomy was fixed. The conventional knowledge was that after infancy the brain can't really change itself and was fully developed, only at old age when the brain starts the long process of decline was it believed to change.

This theory of the unchanging brain put people with mental and emotional problems under a lot of limitations. It basically meant that if you had a problem like an eating disorder, you more or less have to suffer for a life of taking drugs and being sick.

This kind of thinking made people believe that real treatments for mental disorders are always biological and involve drugs and that psychological (talk) therapy is not biological and just merely talk, so would not work.

But now, we have important data from psychoanalytical therapies and neuroscience that shows that when patients come in with their brains in certain states of miss wiring (mental states) then after undertaking psychological (neuroplastic) interventions their brains can be rewired without drugs or surgeries. This proves that neuroplastic therapy is every bit as biological as the use of drugs and even more precise at times because it is targeted.

To prove this fact American psychiatrist Dr Jeffrey M. Schwartz (UCLA School of Medicine) did some amazing research on his patients who suffered different form s of obsessions and compulsions. His patients went through neuroplastic treatment called "Four Step Spet4elf-Treatment Method".

Before and after the treatment his patients had a PET scan of their brain. The PET scan showed that after neuroplastic treatment there was reduced activity in brain's caudate nucleus (the centre of the brain which gets overactive with patients with obsessions).

Obsessions and compulsions are the main components of eating disorders but in relation to food.

So, this research showed that neuroplastic therapy can biologically change the structure of the brain and help people to be free from their obsessions without drugs.

What are Neurotransmitters and How do they Influence the development of Eating Disorders?

Neurotransmitters are chemicals which facilitate the transmission of signal from one neuron to another. Neurotransmitters are released in synapses (or where the ending of one neuron connects to the endings of another neuron).

There are different types of neurotransmitters. Here we will look at the most important ones.

Acetylcholine: Acetylcholine is a chemical which are involved in memory, learning and attention. When you learn something and pay attention to it – you stimulate the production of acetylcholine.

To maintain this chemical at a certain level you must keep your brain busy with attention requiring work. Study, read books, create something, solve puzzles, get a job where you can use your brain. Just do something that can stimulate the production of acetylcholine in the brain.

Eating disorder sufferers have often a very low acetylcholine level especially when they give up their studies, job and other productive activities for the sake of their eating disorder. They normally explain this quitting as the inability to concentrate, being too weak and etc.

This all happens because the level of acetylcholine in their brain is low. But they can improve it by exercising their own will, going back to study and beginning to learn again and paying attention to something more useful and constructive than their eating disorder.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which produces a sense of well-being calm and satisfaction. Many scientists blame the lack of this chemical for eating disorder problems. Serotonin has a broad function in the brain. It regulates and moderates anger, aggression, body temperature, mood, sleep, human sexuality, appetite, and metabolism, as well as stimulating vomiting.

It is still not clear what exactly happens with serotonin in the brain of eating disorder sufferers, as it is difficult to measure. But we know there are many genetic variations in the serotonin receptors and the serotonin transporters in the brain. It is most likely that a serotonin abnormality in the brain affects each person differently. Serotonin levels can be increased naturally by taking tryptophan rich foods found in meats and proteins.

Dopamine: Dopamine is a chemical associated with pleasurable activity. It is released when people do naturally rewarding activities like having sex or enjoying food. Some drugs such as nicotine, cocaine and amphetamines can influence the level of dopamine in the brain.

Dopamine is actually the culprit in many addictions such as drugs, food, and sex addictions. Dopamine also has other functions in the brain, including important roles in behaviour and cognition, motor activity, motivation and reward, inhibition of prolactin production which is involved in lactation, sleep, mood, attention, and learning.

Recent research has suggested that dopamine is also released in reward-anticipation activities and when people are motivated to do something. If you have ever wondered why you feel great after doing aerobics or playing sport, this is the brain producing dopamine. Just thinking about doing something pleasurable can produce a chemical 'reward' of dopamine being released in your brain.

Enjoyable learning and focusing on something you really like doing will stimulate dopamine production in your brain. The release of dopamine triggers the desire to eat certain foods. The dopamine does not increase the pleasure of actually eating food but is released when the person sees, smells, thinks or dreams about food. Tasting enjoyable food also provokes the release of dopamine.

Dopamine plays an important role in bulimia and binge eating because these people often dream and think about food. And it is why when a bulimic or binge eater sees food she/he goes on a binge losing all sense of control.

Glutamate –it is believed that glutamate (or glutamic acid) is involved in cognitive functions like learning and memory. Many foods contain glutamate, including cheese, soy sauce, fish, eggs, poultry etc.

GABA is a neurotransmitter which is responsible for muscle tones. GABA regulates the growth embryonic and neural stem cells. Abnormal levels of GABA have been found in people with mood disorders.

Substance P is an important chemical which involves pain perception. It also participates in regulation of mood disorders, anxiety, stress, reinforcement, neurogenesis, nausea and vomiting. The vomiting centre in the brain contains high concentrations of Substance P. Activation of Substance P stimulates vomiting. People who use vomiting as a way of purging have abnormalities in the levels of Substance P.

Conclusion: Neurotransmitters play an important role in the biochemistry of eating disorders. But… The level of most of these neurotransmitters can be moderated by performing or not-performing certain actions and behaviours. Replacing one behaviour with another can change the level of neurotransmitters in the brain.

Wilful action can produce extraordinary changes in the level of these chemicals. For instance, if you wilfully stop your binging or purging episodes for at least 2-3 weeks and replace this behaviour with more productive ones, the level of neurotransmitters in your brain will change significantly and can become completely normal again. This works on the use it or lose it principle.

Always remember: your behaviour will change your biology. If you behave better – your biology improves, if you behave worse – your biology becomes worse.

Structure of neuron and neuronal connections (pathways). - Part 2

If you really want to understand how the processes of neuroplasticity occur you need to start your learning process by looking at the structure of a basic neuron and how they connect to each other. To understand basic principles of neuroplasticity you need to know that neuron has:- A body which contain a nucleus : -Many endings - Dendrites : - One bigger endings – Axon

Axon is a very important structure for a signal transmission. It has a myelin sheath to make the transmission of a signal easier. The end of axon (axon terminals) connects to the dendrites of other neurons and through this connection signals go from one neuron to another.

When we think, feel, imagine or dream, all these processes happen because our neurons connect to other neurons in a certain way forming neuronal pathways. Connection between neurons occur in synapses (see picture below) where the axon of one neuron connects to the endings (dendrites) of the other neuron. And the process goes on forming pathways.

So, a neuronal pathway is basically a chain of neurons connected in a certain way. For every behavior, habit, or action we have a certain neuronal pathway. Regular thoughts and feelings also have special neuronal pathways in the brain.

When neurons connect in synapses, the production and release of special chemicals occur. These chemical are called neurotransmitters. That's why a signal transmission in the brain is called an electro-chemical transmission. These chemicals (neurotransmitters) play a huge role in our emotions, feelings and mental states.

Faults in these chemical transmissions can result in different mental-emotional problems including anorexia and bulimia in susceptible individuals.

Dr Ian Frampton one of the authors, who is an honorary consultant in pediatric psychology at London's Great Ormond Street hospital conducted in-depth neuropsychological testing on more than 200 people in the UK, USA and Norway who suffered from anorexia. Dr Frampton and his team found that at least 70% of anorexic patients had suffered damage to their neurotransmitters, which help brain cells communicate with each other.

Luckily, with the help of neuroplasticity we can now influence even produce new neurotransmitters in our brains around the old defective ones.

Neuroplasticity is the key to Eating disorders treatment

Researchers are now suggesting that neuroplasticity could be the answer to treating eating disorders. They are of the view that our own brains, thoughts and emotions are not rigid or fixed in place. But can be changed in order to treat and even cure eating disorders.

So what is neuroplasticity? Let's define it.

The first part neuro is for neurone (which are the nerve cells in the brain) and plasticity means plastic or changeable. Neuroplasticity is the property of the brain that allows the brain to change itself.

These changes occur in four ways:

  1. By responding to the world in a certain way.
  2. By perceiving the world in a certain way.
  3. By acting in the world in a certain way.
  4. By thinking and imagining in a certain way.

All these activities can change the brain and the way it functions.

With "directed Neuroplasticity" scientists and clinicians can pass onto the brain a calculated sequence of input and/or specific patterns of stimulation to make desirable and specific changes in the brain for the better.

For example, under certain kinds of stimulation the brains of eating disorder sufferers can be made to stop focusing on food and weight issues and start focusing on other things. By focusing on other things (which is called focused attention) the brain develops new connections between neurons and rewires itself. The old neuronal connections (connections responsible for their eating disorder) will became less and less active and eventually completely replace themselves with the new connections. This is how neuroplasticity works: by deleting old defective neuron connections and developing new healthy ones.

To make it easier to understand, the brain is made up of many chains of neuronal connections. These chains are responsible for producing certain feelings; thoughts and actions that make people do things. And by changing these connections we can change how they feel and act.

Some eating disorder sufferers may say: "Oh well, I've been suffering for so long so I have probably done some damage to my brain which is irreversible." But according to neuroplasticity principles the damage done does not matter and it can be fixed.

Even if some parts of the brain are damaged, other parts of the brain can take over the function of the damaged parts; by developing new brain connections (or neuronal pass ways) and re-routing them.

Having worked with eating disorder sufferers extensively, I have noticed that many sufferers are aware that what they are doing in terms of eating and dieting does not make sense, and is even doing harm to the bodies.

But they still continue their erratic behaviour because they can't resist the continuous "voices" in their head telling them that they are fat and must continue with their starvation, dieting, or continue to binge and purge.

When you ask them "What do you think the voice is?" They normally answer that it is their brain telling them to do what they do. But when you tell them that it is not their brain, it is their ED (the faulty wiring) telling them to starve themselves or binge and purge: their thought processes start to change. And when they start focusing on the fact that their eating disorder is something separate from their brain, the changes in their behaviour became more profound.

To conclude, neuroplasticity is a great tool in the treatment and in the cure of eating disorders: simply because the brain is not static, but is dynamic and always changing. It undergoes many changes throughout one's entire life; you do not have the same brain you were born with.

By influencing and directing these changes with the correct program it is possible to change peoples eating behaviour, body image and self-esteem. Neuroplasticity is the solution to all eating disorder sufferers' problems: change the way you think and you change your life.


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