Research on the effectiveness of eating disorder treatment is oppositional. Some studies reveal that most people who seek treatment for an eating disorder have successful recovery after and rarely relapse. Other studies suggest that eating disorder treatment is effective, but does not cure the brain entirely, and relapse is common. Recovery from an eating disorder is challenging. Though a relapse doesn’t involve external substances like drugs and alcohol, it involves harmful behaviors like binging, restricting, and purging. Finding a way to live long term recovery without a relapse into disordered eating behaviors is a challenge. New research reveals that may be because even after treatment, the brain is not recovered.

According to Medical Xpress, for those specifically recovering from anorexia nervosa, the brains of patients were not recovered, leaving them vulnerable to experiencing relapse. The study, conducted through the University of COlorado, focused on adolescents in treatment for anorexia. 21 female patients were examined before and after treatment. Compared to another 21 participants who did not have a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa, their rewards systems were still elevated.

“Brain scans of anorexia nervosa patients have implicated central reward circuits that govern appetite and food intake in the disease,” the article explains. “This study showed that the reward system was elevated when the patients were underweight and remained so once weight was restored.” A key player in this problem, researchers feel, is the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Dopamine is a chemical messenger in the brain which relates messages of pleasure to various areas of the brain, most significantly being the nucleus accumbens where the reward center lives. REstricting food intake and receiving rewards for that behavior, like losing weight, dropping the number on the scale, dropping a clothing size, in addition to emotional rewards like feeling in control and feeling more confident, lead to a serious memory association attached to pleasure. The way dopamine creates connections between reward and pleasure is a problem in the pathology of addiction, alcoholism, and other process addictions.

Long term recovery ensures that someone recovering from anorexia nervosa stays in a clinical environment. While continuing their care, they are continuing their clinical therapy, developing new behavioral patterns for a healthy lifestyle, and being held accountable by treatment center staff. Though the study doesn’t take long term treatment into accountability, it is probably that the longer someone is in treatment working on correcting old neural pathways, the better chance they have to totally heal the brain.


Hired Power works with families to approach the sensitive subject of eating disorders in a healthy and productive way with their loved one. Our compassionate team serves to empower the family to bring recovery home. For more information, call us today at 1-800-910-9299.