Do you obsess over your appearance? Your brain might be wired abnormally

April 29, 2013

Body dysmorphic disorder is a disabling but often misunderstood psychiatric condition in which people perceive themselves to be disfigured and ugly, even though they look normal to others. New research at UCLA shows that these individuals have abnormalities in the underlying connections in their brains.

Dr. Jamie Feusner, the study's senior author and a UCLA associate professor of psychiatry, and his colleagues report that individuals with BDD have, in essence, global "bad wiring" in their brains—that is, there are abnormal network-wiring patterns across the brain as a whole.

And in line with earlier UCLA research showing that people with BDD process abnormally, the study discovered abnormal connections between regions of the brain involved in visual and emotional processing.

The findings, published in the May edition of the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, suggest that these patterns in the brain may relate to impaired .

"We found a strong correlation between low efficiency of connections across the whole brain and the severity of BDD," Feusner said. "The less efficient patients' , the worse the symptoms, particularly for compulsive behaviors, such as checking mirrors."

People suffering from BDD tend to fixate on minute details, such as a single blemish on their face or body, rather than viewing themselves in their entirety. They become so distressed with their appearance that they often can't lead normal lives, are fearful of leaving their homes and occasionally even commit suicide. Patients frequently have to be hospitalized. BDD affects approximately 2 percent of the population and is more prevalent than or bipolar disorder. Despite its prevalence and severity, scientists know relatively little about the of BDD.

In the current study, Feusner and his colleagues performed of 14 adults diagnosed with BDD and 16 healthy controls. The goal of the study was to map the brain's connections to examine how the white-matter networks are organized. White matter is made up of nerve cells that carry impulses from one part of the brain to another.

To do this, they used a sensitive form of brain imaging called diffusion tensor imaging, or DTI. DTI is a variant of magnetic resonance imaging that can measure the structural integrity of the brain's white matter. From these scans, they were able to create whole brain "maps" of reconstructed white-matter tracks. Next, they used a form of advanced analysis called graph theory to characterize the patterns of connections throughout the brains of people with BDD and then compared them with those of healthy controls.

The researchers found people with BDD had a pattern of abnormally high network "clustering" across the entire brain. This suggests that these individuals may have imbalances in how they process "local" or detailed information. The researchers also discovered specific abnormal connections between areas involved in processing visual input and those involved in recognizing emotions.

"How their brain regions are connected in order to communicate about what they see and how they feel is disturbed," said Feusner, who also directs the Adult Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Program and the Research Program at UCLA.

"Their brains seem to be fine-tuned to be very sensitive to process minute details, but this pattern may not allow their brains to be well-synchronized across regions with different functions," he said. "This could affect how they perceive their physical appearance and may also result in them getting caught up in the details of other thoughts and cognitive processes."

The study, Feusner noted, advances the understanding of BDD by providing evidence that the "hard wiring" of patients' brain networks is abnormal.

"These abnormal networks could relate to how they perceive, feel and behave," he said. "This is significant because it could possibly lead to us being able to identify early on if someone is predisposed to developing this problem."

Explore further: People with body-image disorders process 'big picture' visual information abnormally

Related Stories

People with body-image disorders process 'big picture' visual information abnormally

May 26, 2011
People suffering from body dysmorphic disorder, or BDD — a severe mental illness characterized by debilitating misperceptions that one appears disfigured and ugly — process visual information abnormally, even when ...

Recognising flipped famous faces has links to mental health

April 13, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- According to researchers from the University of Hertfordshire, individuals with the mental health problem Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) cannot accurately detect negative facial emotions but they have ...

Plastic surgeons should be aware of patients with 'excessive concern' about appearance

July 28, 2011
Moderate to severe symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) - excessive concern about appearance that interferes with daily life - are found in 33 percent of patients seeking plastic surgery to improve the appearance of ...

Restricted food intake a predictor of increased suicide attempts in Body Dysmorphic Disorder patients

June 5, 2012
Rhode Island Hospital and Auburn University researchers found a link between restrictive food intake, or excessive dieting, and an increase in suicide attempts in people with Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). The study focused ...

Recommended for you

'Residual echo' of ancient humans in scans may hold clues to mental disorders

July 26, 2017
Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) have produced the first direct evidence that parts of our brains implicated in mental disorders may be shaped by a "residual echo" from our ancient past. The more ...

Laser used to reawaken lost memories in mice with Alzheimer's disease

July 26, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers at Columbia University has found that applying a laser to the part of a mouse brain used for memory storage caused the mice to recall memories lost due to a mouse version of Alzheimer's ...

Cognitive cross-training enhances learning, study finds

July 25, 2017
Just as athletes cross-train to improve physical skills, those wanting to enhance cognitive skills can benefit from multiple ways of exercising the brain, according to a comprehensive new study from University of Illinois ...

Brain disease seen in most football players in large report

July 25, 2017
Research on 202 former football players found evidence of a brain disease linked to repeated head blows in nearly all of them, from athletes in the National Football League, college and even high school.

Zebrafish study reveals clues to healing spinal cord injuries

July 25, 2017
Fresh insights into how zebrafish repair their nerve connections could hold clues to new therapies for people with spinal cord injuries.

Lutein may counter cognitive aging, study finds

July 25, 2017
Spinach and kale are favorites of those looking to stay physically fit, but they also could keep consumers cognitively fit, according to a new study from University of Illinois researchers.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

daggoth
not rated yet Apr 30, 2013
So? Men already knew that about women, we just deal with it.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.