U researcher will stimulate a nerve to combat bulimia

Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

A University researcher will begin research to combat the physical causes of bulimia.

Dr. Patricia Faris said she will begin a study using an implantable device that makes patients with eating disorders feel full.

Four percent of females in the United States have suffered or will suffer from bulimia, which involves binging and vomiting to lose weight, according to the National Institutes of Health.

About 5 percent of students surveyed by Boynton Health Service in 2001 had been diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia in their lifetime, said Dave Golden, Boynton community program specialist.

Faris, who has studied bulimia since 1990, is focusing on the vagus nerve, which sends signals to and from the stomach and the brain.

In a normal person, the vagus nerve serves two functions, she said. It signals the brain when the stomach is full and also induces vomiting if the person has eaten something that does not agree with their stomachs, she said.

With people suffering from bulimia, she suspected that forced binging and purging over-stimulates and alters the vagus nerve. This could damage the nerve’s ability to signal fullness.

Because of the nerve damage, bulimia becomes an involuntary and physical disorder in its most severe cases, she said.

“Basically, it goes from self-gagging to involuntary vomiting because the nerve doesn’t tell the brain how full they are,” Faris said. “They overeat because they don’t feel full.”

To counter this stage of the disorder, Faris’ research will work to stimulate the vagus nerve.

“Once they start binge eating, the vagus nerve stimulation will make them feel full before they stop eating, and before they feel that uncontrollable urge to vomit,” she said.

The research will involve implanting a disc-like device, slightly bigger than a silver dollar, underneath the skin where the breast meets the arm, she said. The disc will have under-the-skin cables that can electrically stimulate a section of the nerve that runs along the side of the neck, creating a more normal sense of fullness.

If people want to turn the device off, they’ll be able to do so with a magnet, Faris said.

At the same time, if a patient has the urge to start binge eating, he or she can turn up the device’s stimulation to feel fuller, she said.

Faris likened the device, which has been previously used to stop epileptic seizures, to a heart pacemaker because it regulates nerve activity.

Faris said psychological treatment for bulimia is also important. She said the device is not meant to substitute counseling or other treatment options.

“Everybody knows diabetics can benefit from nutrition and exercise, but they also have to have insulin replacement,” Faris said, comparing bulimia and diabetes treatment. “In severe bulimia, getting at the psychological causes is still important.”

The University offers various programs to help students through the psychological aspects of eating disorders, said Candice Price, a psychiatric social worker at Boynton.

There are counseling and group sessions for students suffering from all types of eating disorders, she said. If necessary, Boynton employees also can refer students to programs for those with more severe problems.

Often, she said, students come in to talk because an eating disorder has become such a hindrance to their normal lives.

“They get tired of the problem,” Price said. “An eating disorder can be all-consuming, and it’s often secretive and very personal.”

Price said getting help, particularly in group sessions, eases the embarrassment many women have of admitting they have a problem.

“In the groups, women find it to be really comforting. The other women know what it’s like,” she said. “The person isn’t the problem, the problem is the problem.”