Research published this morning has shown magnetic brain stimulation could play a role in the treatment of anorexia. The study by the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IOPPN) involved 60 volunteers. This is the first randomised trial to investigate this type of treatment in eating disorders.

Research has shown some victims of the disease have dysfunction in areas of the brain involved in self-control, such as the pre-frontal cortex. Researchers at the IOPPN believe brain stimulation may interfere with brain signals in this area to help reduce symptoms of anorexia.

The procedure known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) involves a hand held coil, which generates a magnetic field, being placed near the head of the patient. The magnetic pulses temporarily alter neural activity in small areas of the brain. TMS has already been approved in the treatment of major depression and is regarded as being very safe.

Despite the promising results, Dr Jessica McCelland of King’s College London said more research needed to be done, since the study only looked at the short term effects of TMS: “Given the success of this study, the next step is to see whether TMS treatment has longer lasting therapeutic benefits in people with anorexia”

In the trial, each participant was given an MRI scan, a food exposure task and a decision making task, before and after TMS.  A similar group faced the same tasks but received a sham or placebo version of the treatment. The results showed a single session of TMS reduced core symptoms of anorexia such as feeling full, feeling fat and urge to restrict food intake. The results also showed improved decision making, including their ability to delay reward – which is also significant, since anorexia is associated with impulsivity.

There are more than 725,000 people in the UK who are affected by the condition, according to a recent report commissioned by the charity Beat. Research shows up to 20% of people who suffer from anorexia die prematurely. Current treatments are largely ineffective, using the best available talking therapies only 10–30% of suffers currently recover from the condition.