New Research Points Towards Potential Treatment for Anorexia

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Key Takeaways

  • Anorexia might be caused by lack of a specific brain chemical

  • Mice with a deficit in acetylcholine appear to have anorexia-like symptoms

  • A drug to boost acetylcholine reduced anorexia symptoms in both mice and humans

THURSDAY, July 11, 2024 (HealthDay News) -- Anorexia nervosa could be caused by lack of a specific brain chemical, reports a research team that has developed a possible cure for the eating disorder.

Mouse studies have revealed that a deficit in acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter associated with the brain’s reward system, could be linked to excessive habit formation.

This deficit could be behind the compulsive self-starvation seen in people with anorexia, researchers argue in the July 7 issue of the journal Nature Communications.

The Alzheimer's drug donepezil, which increases acetylcholine, “fully reversed the anorexia-like behavior in mice, and we believe that it could potentially offer the first mechanism-based treatment of anorexia nervosa,” said senior researcher Dr. Salah El Mestikawy, professor of psychiatry with McGill University’s Douglas Research Center in Montreal.

“In fact, we are already seeing its effects on some patients with the disease,” El Mestikawy added in a McGill news release.

Positive results have already been seen in 10 patients with severe anorexia who are being treated with low doses of donepezil, researchers said.

Three patients are in full remission from anorexia, and the other seven have shown marked improvements, results show.

Full-fledged clinical trials comparing donepezil against placebo in treating anorexia are set to start later this year at three major hospitals in the United States and France, researchers said.

However, El Mestikawy cautioned that it could take several years before a new drug targeting anorexia receives government approval and becomes available to patients.

Donepezil causes many gastrointestinal and muscle side effects, El Mestikawy said. Researchers are working to develop a new drug that boosts acetylcholine with fewer problems.

“We also suspect that other compulsive pathologies such as obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD) and addictions can also be improved by donepezil, so we are actively looking for collaboration with other psychiatrist[s] around the world to explore the possibilities,” El Mestikawy added.

More information

Johns Hopkins Medicine has more on anorexia.

SOURCE: McGill University, news release, July 7, 2024

What This Means For You

People with anorexia should talk with their doctor about upcoming clinical trials testing drug treatments for the eating disorder.

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