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One step closer to a treatment for anorexia

Since the start of the pandemic, the incidence of anorexia among teenagers has skyrocketed—an alarming situation considering that 10% of people suffering from anorexia die from complications related to the disorder and there is currently no drug to control it, mainly because the neuronal mechanisms involved have yet to be elucidated. Salah El Mestikawy, researcher at the Douglas Hospital Research Centre affiliated with McGill University, and colleagues from Western University have identified a dysfunction in the brain that may explain some of the more severe forms of anorexia and found a potential treatment.

Since the start of the pandemic, the incidence of anorexia among teenagers has skyrocketed.

To communicate, neurons combine electric signals and transmissions between chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters. Among these neurotransmitters is acetylcholine, which plays a key role in the striatum, a structure located within the brain that regulates locomotor activity, reward sensitivity and habit formation.

Salah El Mestikawy’s team observed that, in mice, low levels of acetylcholine in the striatum lead to the development of uncontrollable and devastating habits such as anorexic behaviours. More specifically, mice become anorexic when they are placed under stressful conditions. In a stable environment without any significant stressors, the mice do not develop the eating disorder.

These findings demonstrate how the environment can influence a dysfunctional brain. The study was validated on human subjects through a collaboration with Philip Gorwood at GHU Paris, making it possible to affirm that the confinement in spring 2020 likely triggered many anorexia cases.

Professor El Mestikawy and his team then showed the efficacy of the drug Aricept, which is often prescribed to Alzheimer patients, for restoring acetylcholine levels. Along with Philip Gorwood, the researchers are currently developing an initial pilot study with a small group of individuals suffering from anorexia to eventually greenlight the treatment in humans. Should the results prove conclusive, physicians will then have the very first pharmacological regimen for the most severe forms of anorexia and perhaps even other mental disorders such obsessive-compulsive behaviours and addiction.