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Research could shed light on eating disorders

CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta

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• Interactive: Eating disorders 
• MedlinePlus: Eating Disorders external link
• National Institute of Mental Health: Eating Disorders external link

(CNN) -- New medical research could help shed light on the cause of two serious and common eating disorders: anorexia, which involves aversion to food that leads to life-threatening weight loss, and bulimia, which involves binge eating and then purging the body of food.

The new evidence suggests that anorexia and bulimia may be caused partly by an autoimmune disorder that disrupts the body's regulation of food intake and body weight. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta discussed them with anchor Paula Zahn Tuesday.

GUPTA: Eating disorders... [are] very common. Seven million women have it, about a million men as well. People don't often think of the men.

But as common as they are, they are also complicated. A whole host of different factors could possibly cause eating disorders. Psychological factors, no question about it, as well as cultural, social, familial factors, genetic [factors], possibly excessive serotonin. All these sorts of things.

There is another possible cause now that is being thrown into the mix as well. It is decidedly more science-y, Paula. We're talking about the possibility of an autoimmune process causing eating disorders. The same sort of autoimmune process that causes [multiple sclerosis], causes lupus, causes rheumatoid arthritis.

Some researchers decided to study that very issue. They actually looked at 57 women who had eating disorders, and they decided to actually measure their blood. Specifically for some sort of autoimmune process antibodies that actually attack your body's own native cells to find out if, in fact, there are a lot of antibodies in the blood of these women that might influence the way that they regulate how much they eat, regulate their metabolism.

And in a majority of women, over 80 percent, they found that, in fact, that was just the case, that there were these antibodies that actually go to the brain and affect how much someone wants to eat, how much someone wants to signal their body that they need food, things like that. ...[It's] the first time something like that had really been studied, although there had been this notion for a long time that there was this connection, literally this connection between the mind and the brain and the body in terms of these eating disorders.

A very complicated sort of diagnosis, Paula, but certainly this has been one of those things that people just haven't known for a long time, what causes it, and this may be a possible answer.

ZAHN: So do you suspect this then will lead to new treatments for bulimia and anorexia?

GUPTA: Right -- there's not a lot of good treatments right now for either one of those eating disorders. Psychotherapy is one of them, nutritional counseling. SSRI antidepressants, this is a type of medication primarily used for depression, but has met with some success when treating eating disorders, helping women sort of maintain their weight, even gain weight in some situations. What we're talking about here now is possibly actually treating these autoimmune problems much in the same way that you treat arthritis, trying to knock down the amount of antibodies that are actually causing the problem in the brain.

Again, Paula, it's early, but this definitely has a lot of people very excited about that possibility.

ZAHN: Before we let you go, you want to quickly tick off what the specific autoimmune disease is we're talking about here?

GUPTA: Yes. Autoimmune diseases are one of these sort of interesting things in science. This is when the body sort of looks at what is normal tissue in the body, normal tissue that should be there, and says, You know what, that tissue looks odd. That tissue looks foreign. Let's attack it.

That's exactly what happens in the case of rheumatoid arthritis, [multiple sclerosis], lupus, diseases like that. These antibodies actually attack the body's own native tissues. Those are some examples of it, and again, when we're talking about eating disorders, what they are finding is that the antibodies' levels do seem to be increased in some of these patients with those eating disorders.

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