Dr Andrea Phillipou talks about a groundbreaking study on Anorexia Nervosa

We are proud to announce that EDFA Board Director and Research Committee Chair Dr Andrea Phillipou has been part of a research group that has discovered what is believed to be the first biomarker for anorexia nervosa.

What are bio-markers and why are they important?

Dr Andrea Philipou Researcher

Biomarkers are characteristics of our bodies that can be measured. They include things like blood sugar, heart rate and bone density. They are typically used in the detection and treatment of physical illnesses, but never before have they been used in mental disorders. That is until now.

Dr Phillipou says “We initially started researching eye movements in people with anorexia nervosa as a way to indirectly identify which brain areas may be involved in the condition. We use very specific brain areas to move our eyes in different ways – and like all brain areas, these regions don’t just have one function but are involved in other processes as well, such as body image in this case. 

“We were expecting to see differences in eye movements in people with anorexia nervosa as it’s common to have different types of eye movement problems in people with psychological or neurological conditions. We weren’t, however, expecting to see this particular type of eye movement in anorexia nervosa as it’s not typical in any other group of people with psychological conditions. 

“We also weren’t expecting it to be so common in people with anorexia nervosa so that we could use it (together with anxiety) to distinguish between people with and without anorexia nervosa without any other information about the participant. Interestingly, we found these types of eye movements in people who were also weight-restored following anorexia nervosa, as well as in sisters of individuals with anorexia nervosa.

A heritable component

Dr Philiopou acknowledges “there may be a heritable component that makes some people more likely to develop anorexia nervosa. The research is still very much in its early days though, and we need to do a lot more to understand what this all means and how we could use it to help people with anorexia nervosa.”

We’re hoping with more research, we’ll be able to use this ‘biomarker’ as a tool to identify people who might be at risk of developing anorexia nervosa so we can prevent people from developing the condition in the first place.”

Hard to diagnose, harder to treat

Anorexia Nervosa is a life-threatening eating disorder that generally begins in early adolescence. It is often secretive and associated with persistent denial of symptoms and resistance to treatment. It has the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses and low rates of recovery. It can be hard to diagnose and even harder to treat.

Dr Phillipou continues “We’re currently running a pilot study using non-invasive brain stimulation to target the brain regions involved in this eye movement with the hope that it’ll improve symptoms of anorexia nervosa.”

It’s a discovery that has the power to rewrite someone’s life story.

Dr Andrea Phillipou is passionate about providing better outcomes for people affected by eating disorders and their families, and is proud to contribute to the work undertaken by EDFA. She also has a very special interest in eating disorders. “Having had a family member with the illness, I know how important it is that we are able to intervene early with treatment, as well as have other treatment options that may be more effective for some people.”