Get help. Refer a patient. Find hope. 888-364-5977


Get help. Refer a patient.
Find hope. 888-364-5977

October 29, 2015

The Neuroplasticity of the Brain

by Mark Warren, M.D.

photo of the human brain 685x379

In the last 10 years, the notion that eating disorders are biologically based illnesses has begun to gain significant traction both inside and outside the eating disorder community.

Following "The Decade of the Brain" in the '90s and the explosion of research in brain chemistry, anatomy and function, we now better understand how we are susceptible to eating disorders based on a pre-existing neurological status and how our personalities, behaviors and experiences in eating disorders are all linked.

This body of knowledge is exciting and hopeful, yet also challenging. Often when people hear that eating disorders are biologically based, they experience one of two polar reactions.

For some, this notion helps people with an eating disorder remove the stigma, shame and blame, while providing hope that the biology can be corrected and resolved. For others, the knowledge seems frightening and at times creates a sense of hopelessness.

The good news is the brain is highly neuroplastic, meaning the brain has the ability to rewire itself, changing the way it functions to create new challenges, abilities and behaviors.

The primary mechanism for creating neuroplasticity is behavior and experience. We know this from our own lives in general. To learn something new or different, we must actually do it. For example, if we want to learn how to ski, we must get out on the slopes, rather than study the techniques in a textbook.

That's why treatment has become more experiential and behavioral. Each time we eat with others and distract ourselves from negative thoughts, we learn to recognize fears and emotions. By repeatedly practicing healthy behaviors, we will become healthier.

We now know that neuroplasticity is likely one of the prime mechanisms for eating disorder recovery. It is possible at any age for anyone. Though we can't make promises, our current understanding of the brain is that it has the ability to alter ourselves in ways that will make us healthier and happier.

About the Author

Mark Warren, M.D.

Mark Warren, M.D.

Mark Warren is the chief medical officer of The Emily Program. He is also one of the original founders of the Cleveland Center for Eating Disorders, which became The Emily Program – Cleveland in 2014. A Cleveland native, he is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Medical School and completed his residency at Harvard Medical School. He served as Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Mt. Sinai Hospital and Medical Director of University Hospital Health System's Laurelwood Hospital. A past vice-chair for clinical affairs at the Case School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry, he continues on the Clinical Faculty of the Medical School, teaching in both the Departments of Psychiatry and Pediatrics. He is currently a faculty member and former chair of the Board of Governors at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. Dr. Warren is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, a two-time recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award of the national Alliance for the Mentally Ill, and a winner of the Woodruff Award. He leads the Males and Eating Disorders special interest group for the Academy of Eating Disorders.

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