Seeking biological roots of eating disorders

November 21, 2022

Lindsay Bodell, assistant professor, Department of PsychologyAdolescent girls face social pressures around body image, yet for some, this may results in serious consequences, through the development of eating disorders.

Lindsay Bodell will undertake a novel study to determine what may lead to this, and whether there are possible links between biological processes and response to social pressures.

Bodell, an assistant professor in the department of Psychology, is broadly focused on identifying psychological and biological processes that contribute to the development and maintenance of eating disorders.

One factor found to increase risk for developing disordered eating behaviours in adolescent girls is a social pressures to be thin, including people commenting on their weight, and discrepancies between what they think is their ideal weight, and their actual weight.

“We know adolescent girls are at high risk for eating disorders. Most girls are exposed to these same messages – pressures to be thin effect most adolescent girls –yet, eating disorders, relatively speaking are quite rare,” said Bodell, “so why are some girls more likely to develop eating disorders in response to social risks than others.”

Bodell suspects that some people’s brains may be more susceptible to social evaluation and pressure, putting them at greater risk of developing disordered eating behaviours

The study will focus on girls aged 13 to 18, one group who has disordered eating behaviours, and one group who does not. Participants will complete a social evaluation task, whether they will be rating other girls. They will then undergo fMRI scans, where they will get feedback on how other participants rated them.

Through the fMRI scans, Bodell and her team will see whether the brain responses to social feedback vary between groups, and whether the variations are related to the severity of eating disorder symptoms.

“This is a first step to understanding whether there are differences in responses to social feedback – between individual with and without eating disorders,” she said. Based on the results, the study may continue through longitudinal studies to see how these process maybe connected to eating disorders.

Bodell has received $100,000 in funding from the Brain Canada Foundation to support the research.

She is pleased to receive funding for the project, “it’s exciting to have a foundation willing to provide funding in this area that really needs support.”

While similar models have been used to understand risks of anxiety and depression, Bodell said this is the first study to link the social environment with biological processes in the context of eating disorders.

“Eating disorders tend to be underfunded, particularly when compared to how costly they are to society,” she said. “People don’t realize that eating disorders have one of the highest mortality rates of any psychiatric condition.”