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Q&A: Spotting the earliest signs of an eating disorder

Last updated

25/02/19

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In a Medical Research Foundation-MRC funded study, Dr Sylvane Desrivières from King’s College London is using a cohort of 2,000 young people – studied from the age of 14 to 23 – to identify possible risk factors in the development of eating disorders.

Why is it important to identify dysfunctional eating behaviours as early as possible?

Eating disorders are life-threatening illnesses, which can have a devastating impact on people who develop a disorder, as well as their family and friends. These disorders largely begin to develop during adolescence, and the causes are still largely unknown. There is an urgent need for research to identify early factors which may occur before the appearance of an eating disorder, so that we can intervene and offer treatment as early as possible, before the condition becomes chronic and hard to treat.

How are you using ‘big data’ to spot these early risk factors?

If we really want to grasp the various biological, psychological and social causes of eating disorders, we need to assimilate vast amounts of information from large and complex datasets. That’s why we’re applying big data methods to a wide range of longitudinal data, drawing on a large sample of adolescents, to identify various possible risk factors.

What kind of early risk factors are you looking for?

There are lots of risk factors which might be early predictors of an eating disorder, including differences in brain structure and function, the presence of one or more other health problems (comorbidity), significant life events, such as going to secondary schools or university, and various personality factors. Thanks to the IMAGEN dataset and our cohort of patients with an eating disorder diagnosis, we can examine all of these factors at once by collecting and analysing data from a number of different sources, including self-report questionnaires, clinician assessments, genomics and other biological measures and brain scans.

How will this help to inform future prevention and treatment strategies?

We expect biological measures and neuroimaging to offer new insights, compared with the existing standard assessments, in order to advance our understanding of the causes of eating disorders. This could aid the development of novel early intervention programmes before all signs of the disease have developed. An early detection and intervention strategy like this, which prevents the course of disease, could potentially be extended to other comorbid mental disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Find out more about Dr Sylvane Desrivières' research.

There is an urgent need for research to identify early factors which may occur before the appearance of an eating disorder, so that we can intervene and offer treatment as early as possible, before the condition becomes chronic and hard to treat. Dr Sylvane Desrivières

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