Researchers say they have found unique brain cells responsible for controlling anxiety in mice. The discovery of these “anxiety cells” could signify a massive change in how anxiety is understood and treated if similar cells are found in our brains.
“The therapies we have now have significant drawbacks,” said Mazen Kheirbek, an assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco and an author of the study. “This is another target that we can try to move the field forward for finding new therapies.”
Kheirbek says the study was motivated by a desire to understand “where the emotional information that goes into the feeling of anxiety is encoded within the brain.”
Anxiety is typically thought of as a negative feeling or experience, but there is evidence indicating some amounts of anxiety are actually healthy. Anxiety keeps us aware of dangerous situations and stay alert when at higher risk for harm. The problem is when anxiety persists or appears without the presence of danger or identifiable stressors.
To study the brain cells affected by anxiety, the researchers implanted miniature microscopes into the brains of mice. This allowed them to monitor the cells in the brains of the mice in real-time as they were exposed to stressful situations.
The researchers say that a number of cells were uniquely responsible for responding to stress.
“We call these anxiety cells because they only fire when the animals are in places that are innately frightening to them,” one of the study’s senior researchers, Rene Hen, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at CUIMC, said in a statement. “For a mouse, that’s an open area where they’re more exposed to predators, or an elevated platform.”
Using a technique called optogenetics, the team found they were able to “turn up or turn down” these specific cells, making them more or less sensitive to stimuli.
“When the cells were silenced, the mice spent more time wandering onto elevated platforms and away from protective walls,” the UCSF news center reported. “When the cells were stimulated, the mice exhibited more anxiety-behaviors even when they were in ‘safe’ surroundings.”
Mice are often used in early experiments because their physiology closely resembles that of humans, but that doesn’t make them an exact match. Many studies done on mice cannot be replicated in people. As such, it is hard to tell just how big of a discovery these “anxiety cells” are.
If the researchers are able to replicate the study and find “anxiety cells” in people, it would provide the clearest target for future treatments yet. It may even suggest anxiety could eventually be treated by monitoring and stimulating these cells as necessary.
Joshua Gordon, director of the NIMH, which helped fund this study, said in an interview with NPR, that the study is just “one brick in a big wall” of research necessary.
“If we can learn enough,” Gordon said, “we can develop the tools to turn on and off the key players that regulate anxiety in people.”
Weigh-ins and restricted diets are considered a normal part of athletics, especially for those elite few who get to compete at the Olympic level. It has just been accepted that athletes have their weights publicly available for everyone to see, theoretically to provide some sort of statistical comparison for matchups. One country, however, has broken that tradition to be more sensitive to those with eating disorders.
Norway has opted to withhold the weights of its athletes from publicly available Olympics data, saying they believe it puts the focus on the wrong thing.
“Focus on sport should be something else than weight,’’ Halvor Lea, spokesman for the Norway Olympic Committee, told USA TODAY Sports in an email, “and in a society with a lot of challenges regarding weight focus on young men and women, our choice is to drop to inform about athletes weight.”
Several Olympic athletes who have struggled with disordered eating and body image problems throughout their career say the pressure to maintain a specific weight contributed to their eating disorders.
It should be noted, countries are not required in any way to provide weight information to the official Olympic website.
Mark Adams, spokesperson for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), told USA TODAY he wasn’t aware of any official position on the matter.
“I don’t think we would take a view on that,’’ he said. “I think it’s up to each team to decide what they want or don’t want to put.’’
While Germany, Japan, and Austria all provide this type of information, the US varies by sport. You can find the weights of lugers and hockey players, but not snowboarders and figure skaters.
It is unclear when exactly Norway developed this policy. Most say it began around the time of the 2008 Summer Olympics through the country’s handball team.
“This is part of our work with values in elite sport,’’ Lea said. “There is no reasonable argument that an athlete should have to inform about his/her weight. Information about weight is not important, and in respect with athletes, our decision is not to inform about it.’
U.S. Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon might look like any other male figure skater to the untrained eye, but those more familiar with the sport might notice the differences in his body: taller, more muscular, more powerful thighs, and more prominent body features. Rippon himself certainly noticed the difference.
“I looked around and saw my competitors, they’re all doing these quads, and at the same time they’re a head shorter than me, they’re 10 years younger than me and they’re the size of one of my legs,” Rippon told The New York Times.
These days he recognizes this is what makes him stand out and contributed to taking home a bronze medal in figure skating team competition. Not too long ago, though, he lived with a much more fraught relationship with food and the constant desire to be smaller.
The 28-year-old Olympian grew up idolizing figure skaters like Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou, whose light frames helped them accomplish quadruple jumps and other difficult skating moves.
Rippon constantly strived to develop a similar build by living on almost nothing. By 2016, he said he was only eating three slices of whole grain bread with sparing dabs of margarine every day. In between these “meals” he allowed himself to consume three cups of coffee with six packs of Splenda. By any measure, Rippon was starving himself to death.
It wasn’t until Rippon broke one of his legs last year during a warm-up, that Rippon began to realize how much harm his diet was doing.
“I think I had a stress fracture before I broke my foot and I think that was absolutely because I was not getting enough nutrients,” he said.
While hearing Rippon’s daily diet probably shocks the average person, it appears to be par for the course within the world of skating. The extreme diets and constant workouts of female skaters have been well-documented, and several female skaters have recently begun to publicly discuss how this often leads to eating disorders.
Male figure skaters, on the other hand, have been coyly hinting at the widespread nature of eating disorders in skating for decades without ever actually addressing the issue. Rippon would be one of the first men in the sport to speak so frankly about his body image, diet, and how it affected him.
Unfortunately, the intensely competitive world of Olympic figure skating has a long, intertwined history with disordered eating and extreme diets. It could be years, or even decades, before we can significantly detach the need to be the most agile, flexible, and stylish person on the ice from the desire to also be the thinnest.
Recent shifts in how the U.K.’s government health system handles eating disorders have led to a huge increase in the number of people receiving treatment, according to recent figures released by the National Health Service (NHS).
The number of people admitted to hospitals for inpatient eating disorder treatment has almost doubled in the past six years and are now at their highest rate in more than a decade.
Data collected from NHS Digital show that admissions for anorexia and bulimia leapt from 7,260 admissions in 2011, to 13,885 between April 2016 and 2017.
The increase was most notable among girls under 18-years-old, who went from 961 to 1,904 yearly admissions over the course of the study.
These jumps in inpatient treatment rates could seem concerning, but they are more likely the result of recent NHS initiatives to improve treatment access than the result of a sudden wave of eating disorders.
The NHS has set a goal of providing treatment for 95% of children and young people with eating disorders within one-week of referrals by 2020.
This, combined with recent public awareness efforts, have made treatment more accessible and less stigmatized in the U.K. than ever.
In a statement, a Department of Health spokesperson said the increase is an encouraging indication of better treatment time and access.
We are committed to ensuring everyone with an eating disorder has access to timely treatment.
“We know the numbers seeking treatment are rising and it’s encouraging to see an increase in patients getting routine care within four weeks, as well as a significant improvement in treatment times compared to last year.
“Inpatient treatment should be seen as a last resort, that’s why we have set out plans to expand community-based care for eating disorders – 70 dedicated community eating disorders services are being developed and recruitment to get the teams up to full capacity is under way.”
Eating disorder survivors often share recovery pictures like this on Instagram
Depending who you ask, social media is either a major driving force encouraging eating disorders or a safe place to find or develop communities offering support for those suffering from eating disorders.
Of course, the truth is most likely somewhere in the middle. While so-called “pro-ana” or “pro-mia” communities can promote dangerous body idealization and eating disorder advice, there is no denying that even more eating disorder survivors are using platforms like Instagram and Facebook to find others who have lived through similar struggles and offer support.
One of the biggest ways this takes shape is in young women sharing photos of their bodies during recovery and messages of encouragement for health-focused eating. Unfortunately, some experts believe this phenomenon may be unintentionally perpetuating stereotypes about eating disorders across social media.
Andrea Lamarre, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition at the University of Guelph in Canada, says that while eating disorder support groups provide “valuable space for supportive community”, they largely exclude groups not stereotypically represented in the media (such as minorities, men, or overweight individuals).
Working with her advisor, Dr. Carla Rice, Lamarre evaluated over 1,000 images under the topic of “eating disorder recovery” on Instagram. What they found was that these posts overwhelmingly reflected the “stereotypical trappings of the experience of eating disorders.”
“Most posts continued to feature thin, young, white, women,” Lamarre wrote on The Conversation. “Further, they frequently featured stylized versions of food, reflecting a certain class status and engagement with ‘foodie’ cultures, as well as focusing on food in eating disorders, which are about more than food.”
Despite the fact that eating disorders can affect anyone – from young to old, black and white, and men or women – groups that don’t fit within the mold of “thin, young, white, women” are largely ignored in all forms of media.
While this might seem like an innocent omission, studies have shown that lack of representation can lead to under-diagnosis, under-treatment, and more extreme stigma surrounding eating disorders for these demographics. This, in turn, perpetuates the idea that only young white women are likely to develop eating disorders, creating a self-fueling myth.
Social media’s role in eating disorder advocacy and support isn’t all bad, however. Lamarre notes that a number of users actively subverted these stereotypes and challenged the concepts of body image or perfectionism.
“They used hashtags in unexpected ways, for instance tagging a photo of a dessert ‘#HealthyEating,’ Lamarre explained. “They commented on others’ posts, offering reassurance and community to others working to live recovered lives.”
“However, in order for such communities to be truly transformational — to challenge the stereotypical representations of eating disorders and recovery — they would need to present a wider range of bodies and practices.”
Binge eating disorder can lead to a wide number of mental and physical health problems which can negatively impact a person’s well-being. However, a new study may have found factors that could help pinpoint women whose quality of life may be most severely affected.
According to a study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, overvaluation and binge eating appear to be the strongest predictors of distress and impairment among women with binge eating disorder.
The researchers from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, led by Deborah Mitchison, Ph.D., analyzed data from a sample of 174 women to identify the most significant factors contributing to distress and disability in those with binge eating disorder. The factors evaluated included binge eating, body image disturbance, and body mass index.
The results showed a strong association between binge eating and overvaluation with distress and functional impairment, while they found little to no association for BMI and impairment or distress. Overvaluation, in particular, appeared to be a strong force contributing to functional impairment.
“The findings support the inclusion of overvaluation as a diagnostic criterion or specifier in BED and the need to focus on body image disturbance in treatment and public health efforts in order to reduce the individual and community health burden of this condition,” Mitchison and colleagues write.
Body dysmorphia is a widely recognized condition which affects how people perceive their own bodies. Over time, the dissatisfaction from this misperception is known to contribute to the development of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.
Despite being accepted by the medical community, little is actually known about how body dysmorphia develops or the mechanisms underlying the condition. However, new research from a team at Macquarie University claims to have found evidence that could help understand how body dysmorphia can develop.
In a study published in PLOS ONE, the team says they have found a “psychological pathway” which can lead to misperception of body size and shape and eventually dysmorphia.
The team says that those who are more dissatisfied with their body spend more time examining thinner body parts, which then leads to an adaption in the brains’ visual perception mechanisms. This causes these individuals to perceive thinner bodies as “normal” and a tendency to overestimate their own body size.
“When presented with images of thin and fat bodies at the same time, our study found that people who are less satisfied with their bodies tend to look longer and more often at thin compared to fat bodies,” said Dr. Ian Stephen from Macquarie University, the lead author on the study.
While this might seem somewhat normal, Stephen says the problem is when this develops into changes in perceptual mechanisms in the brain, called visual adaption.
“We know from previous research that gazing at thin bodies for as little as two minutes causes a recalibration of the mechanisms in our brain that encode body fatness. Then, when we see an average sized body, we perceive it as fat,” explained Associate Professor Kevin Brooks, another of the study’s senior authors. “And that’s what we saw happening here. Our participants were asked to use an app to make a series of test bodies look ‘normal’ before and after exposure to the fat and thin bodies. Those who looked more often and longer at the thin bodies made the test bodies thinner after exposure than they did before, and vice versa”.
As past research has shown, this phenomenon also extends beyond our perception of others’ bodies to our judgement of our own bodies.
“By spending more time looking at certain body types, people who are dissatisfied with their own bodies are actually exacerbating their own visual adaption process, causing them to think that the body types they keep gazing at are what should be considered ‘normal’, which in turn increases their risk of overestimating their own body size. This in turn could increase their risk of developing an eating disorder,” explained Dr. Stephen.
While the findings have significant implications for those at risk for eating disorders, body dysmorphia is also a risk factor for compulsive exercise behavior and steroid abuse. The knowledge of how these psychological pathways develop provide insight that could be useful for identifying and potentially preventing these dangerous conditions.
“The findings have implications for the treatment of clinical populations in which high levels of body size and shape misperception are likely to be observed, such as individuals with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and, perhaps, muscle dysmorphia. While we already know that issues around power and control are central to the development of disorders such as anorexia, we now know more about the perceptual mechanisms that may precipitate these disorders,” said Dr Stephen.
“Those with eating disorders already experience significant barriers to seeking help. Understanding how a person’s body misperception developed in the first place can help us to treat the underlying cause of the disorder,” he concluded.
Most would assume winning 28 Olympic medals – 23 of which were gold medals – would be the most rewarding part of Michael Phelps’ life. However, he says helping others with depression has been even more fulfilling.
As part of The Kennedy Forum in Chicago addressing depression, suicide, and mental illness, Phelps spoke with political strategist David Axelrod about how he has spent the years since his last Olympics appearance coming to terms with depression and helping others.
The Cycle of Depression
Phelps’s Olympic wins have frequently been punctuated by issues with substance abuse and depression.
“Really, after every Olympics I think I fell into a major state of depression,” said Phelps when asked to pinpoint when his trouble began. He noticed a pattern of emotion “that just wasn’t right” at “a certain time during every year,” around the beginning of October or November, he said. “I would say ’04 was probably the first depression spell I went through.”
As Axelrod noted, this was the same year Phelps was first charged with driving under the influence.
The next Olympics – in which Phelps won a record eight gold medals – was followed by the infamous photograph of the swimmer smoking marijuana from a bong.
At the time, the photo appeared to show Phelps taking celebrating his wins too far. But, in hindsight, it was evidence of the athlete’s continued struggles with depression. He said drugs were his ways of running from “whatever it was I wanted to run from.” He continued, “It would be just me self-medicating myself, basically daily, to try to fix whatever it was I was trying to run from.”
On the surface, the 2012 Olympics seemed to break this pattern of self-described explosions. He retired from the sport and soon-after slipped away from the public eye. In private, however, Phelps said he lived through the “hardest fall” of his life. “I didn’t want to be in the sport anymore … I didn’t want to be alive anymore.”
It took another DUI in 2014 and this “all-time low” of Phelps sitting along for “three to five days […] just not wanting to be alive” to realize he needed help. Soon after, he entered treatment.
Learning to talk about depression and feelings
“I remember going to treatment my very first day, I was shaking, shaking because I was nervous about the change that was coming up,” Phelps told Axelrod. “I needed to figure out what was going on.”
He recalled how it took time for him to adjust to openly talking about his emotions.
On the first morning of treatment, a nurse woke him early and told him to “look at the wall and tell me what you feel.”
The wall had eight basic emotions hung up.
“How do you think I feel right now, I’m pretty ticked off, I’m not happy, I’m not a morning person,” he angrily responded. Looking back now, he laughs at the memory.
Once he got used to talking about his feelings, Phelps said “life became easy.”
“I said to myself so many times, ‘Why didn’t I do this 10 years ago?’ But, I wasn’t ready.”
“I was very good at compartmentalizing things and stuffing things away that I didn’t want to talk about, I didn’t want to deal with, I didn’t want to bring up — I just never ever wanted to see those things,” said Phelps.
Since his time in treatment, Phelps has incorporated aspects of what he learned, such as stress management techniques, into programs offered by the Michael Phelps Foundation. He also works with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
Now, he says he has learned it is “Ok to not be OK.” He agrees that while mental illness still “has a stigma around it,” things are beginning to improve. “I think people actually finally understand it is real. People are talking about it and I think this is the only way that it can change.”
“That’s the reason why suicide rates are going up — people are afraid to talk and open up,” said Phelps.
By working with young athletes and sharing his experience, Phelps said he has the chance to reach people when they are vulnerable and save lives, “and that’s way more powerful.”
“Those moments and those feelings and those emotions for me are light years better than winning the Olympic gold medal,” said Phelps.
“I am extremely thankful that I did not take my life.”
If you are living with suicidal thoughts or depression, please call Brookhaven at (888) 298-4673 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 for immediate support.
While awareness of eating disorders has grown over the past decade, many groups vulnerable to eating disorders still get overlooked because they don’t fit the stereotype. Young, heterosexual, white women now have wider access to treatment, and face less stigma when openly talking about their eating disorders. Meanwhile, men, people of color, and especially LGBTQ+ individuals continue to live with eating disorders in silence.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), disordered eating has become an epidemic among LGBTQ communities but this demographic still faces unique barriers preventing treatment or recovery.
The NEDA’s latest estimates suggest almost half (42%) of all men with an eating disorder are gay. Gay and bisexual men are also approximately seven times more likely to binge, and 12 times more likely to purge than heterosexual men.
However, this isn’t just an issue for male members of the LGBTQ community.
A Drexel University study published in 2015 found that “young women who are attracted to both sexes or who are unsure about who they are attracted to are more likely to develop an eating disorder than those attracted to only one sex.”
A Washington University study also indicated that transgender individuals have the highest rates of eating disorders compared to any demographic, based on an analysis of 289,024 students from 223 American universities.
Why are LGBTQ people more at risk for eating disorders?
There could potentially be numerous factors contributing to these high rates of eating disorders in LGBTQ people. Members of the LGBTQ community are more likely to live with anxiety or depression, which could contribute to negative body image or disordered eating behavior. Nonetheless, all of these issues appear to stem from the same root.
As the NEDA explains, LGBTQ people face a “broader cultural context of oppression” and a “myriad of unique stressors” that make them incredibly vulnerable to eating disorders.
Child and adolescent primary therapist at Washington’s Eating Recovery Center, Alissa Petee, explained the situation more bluntly when talking to Mic.
“There are a number of factors that make the LGBTQ population particularly susceptible to developing eating disorders,” Petee said.
“It can be traumatic to grow up in a homophobic, heterosexist world. Many may grow up feeling confusion and shame about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and children and adolescents are especially prone to attempting to change their internal experiences by changing their bodies and controlling aspects of life that are accessible to them, including food intake.”
According to Petee, LGBTQ individuals are also more likely to struggle with an eating disorder later in life, compared to the average individual. Rather than developing an eating disorder at the median age of 12-13 years old, a 2010 study discovered the average age for LGB people to develop an eating disorder was 19.2 years old.
“Adults who have come to terms with their sexuality and gender often carry internalized homophobia that can continue to be toxic and painful for them — but it is difficult to recognize that source of pain when one seems to have already gone through the process of coming out,” Petee said. “Underlying trauma and grief related to being different, fear of violence and ostracism, etc., can be fertile ground in someone already genetically predisposed to developing an eating disorder.”
Treatment needs to address LGBTQ issues
Because this trauma from stigma or fear of ostracism are so deeply intertwined with sexuality and gender, many eating disorder specialists say treatment of LGBTQ people must often address all of these issues.
Myra Hendley, primary therapist at Eating Recovery Center, Carolinas, told Bustle that around 30% of her LGBTQ patients brought up struggles with their sexuality during eating disorder-related treatment sessions.
“It is safe to say that perhaps eating disorders and sexuality are not talked about enough in general, whether in correlation with one another or separate,” she says.
Petee agrees that coming to terms with one’s sexuality is a large part of eating disorder recovery for LGBTQ people.
“A significant part of recovery from an eating disorder is better understanding one’s identity and finding ways to accept all parts of one’s self,” Petee said. She continued:
“If someone is struggling with their gender or sexuality, eating disorder treatment may be a catalyst for better understanding and coming to terms with that part of themselves. For those who feel uncomfortable in their skin because of gender dysphoria, treatment from an eating disorder will need to pay close attention to the gender aspect of accepting their body. Non cis-gendered people may feel particularly distressed if their body changes in the recovery process and their appearance becomes even more disconnected from their internal experience of themselves.”
Hendley also notes that addressing these issues at the same time can make treatment more intimidating for LGBTQ people. “For someone with an eating disorder, the shame cycle alone is enough to take on in treatment. When coupled with shame from a family system or society in regards to one’s sexuality, it can be paralyzing for someone.”
While LGBTQ individuals face a wide range of unique issues and stigma that put them at risk for eating disorder, the NEDA says there is evidence that becoming more deeply connected to the queer community may help lower the risk for eating disorders. It may also make treatment more likely to be effective, as connecting with the community can help individuals better accept their sexual identity.
Still, the data shows that more work is needed to make their unique trials better known to the public and create new strategies to encourage treatment for those most vulnerable.
If you or someone you love are living with an eating disorder, give Brookhaven a call at (888) 298-4673. We can answer any questions you have and help you find the best treatment plan for you.
Tom Petty is one of the latest high-profile victims of America’s opioid crisis, according to the rock star’s autopsy results released over the weekend.
Los Angeles County coroner spokesperson Ed Winter confirmed that Petty died of an accidental overdose of opiates at the age of 66 in October of last year. Coroners found a mixture of fentanyl, oxycodone, temazepam, alprazolam, citalopram, acetylfentanyl, and despropionyl fentanyl in his system.
Barely a week before his death, Petty had wrapped up a 40th-anniversary tour with his band, The Heartbreakers. He was relaxing with his family and recovering from the strain of the tour when he was found unresponsive at his home.
In a statement from Petty’s family, Petty’s wide and daughter said the overdose was the result of chronic pain exacerbated by a recently fractured hip.
“Unfortunately Tom’s body suffered from many serious ailments including emphysema, knee problems and most significantly a fractured hip,” they wrote. “Despite this painful injury he insisted on keeping his commitment to his fans and he toured for 53 dates with a fractured hip and, as he did, it worsened to a more serious injury.”
The statement continued: “On the day he died he was informed his hip had graduated to a full on break and it is our feeling that the pain was simply unbearable and was the cause for his over use of medication.”
If the news surrounding Petty’s death seems eerily familiar, it is because it closely parallels the death of another famous musician last year. There are several similarities between the deaths of Prince and Tom Petty.
Both Prince and Tom Petty toured heavily despite severe physical issues and chronic pain. Both musicians began using opiates legitimately to treat their pain, but eventually began to over-use the medication until it led to an accidental overdose.
The deaths of these famous musicians also bear notable similarities to those who have overdosed on opiates across America in recent years. In their statement, Petty’s family noted that “many people who overdose begin with a legitimate injury or simply do not understand the potency and deadly nature of these medications.”
They also encouraged the public to let the news about Petty’s overdose foster greater awareness about the risks of opioids.
“As a family we recognize this report may spark a further discussion on the opioid crisis and we feel that it is a healthy and necessary discussion and we hope in some way this report can save lives.”
While the family is still grieving Tom Petty’s passing, the recent news has granted them some closure.
“On a positive note we now know for certain he went painlessly and beautifully exhausted after doing what he loved the most, for one last time, performing live with his unmatchable rock band for his loyal fans on the biggest tour of his 40 plus year career,” Mr. Petty’s family said in their statement. “He was extremely proud of that achievement in the days before he passed.”
Overdoses are an increasingly common result of the widespread abuse and addiction to opioids in America. Even if you began taking an opioid medication under doctor’s recommendation, prolonged use is highly likely to lead to abuse and the risk for a tragic accident. If you or someone you know may be abusing opioids, please give us a call at (888) 298-4673. We can help answer any questions you may have and find the best treatment plan for you.
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