Do You Obsess About Your Appearance? Your Brain Might Be Wired Abnormally

Posted on May 24th, 2013
Posted in Mental Health

A person with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) sees themselves as unattractive or even disfigured in some way despite the fact that others view them as looking perfectly normal. BDD affects around 2 percent of the population, making it a more common disorder than either bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Nonetheless, the biological causes of BDD have remained shrouded in mystery. A recent UCLA study attempted to lift the cloud of unknowing.

The research group asked 14 adults with the disorder and 16 non-affected adults to take part in a brain scan study. Researchers used highly specialized scanning technology known as diffusion tensor imaging to get a closer look at the way white matter networks are organized in the brains of those with BDD. White matter is what conducts impulses to the various brain regions.  This was essentially a mapping expedition.

What the researchers discovered was that the brains of persons with BDD were encompassed by networks of abnormal wiring. Abnormal clusters of networks were found all over the brain, but there appeared to be particular impairment in brain centers responsible for visual processing and emotional regulation. The brain imaging revealed the pathways that white matter travels across the brain and those pathways, or networks, looked quite different between a BDD affected brain and a healthy brain.

The more affected a person is by BDD, the less efficiently the brain is processing information.  This could explain why mirror-checking behavior becomes compulsive as the disorder worsens.  The person with BDD is unable to process the image of themselves as a whole. Instead, the person fixates on a single flaw. The minor blemish then becomes the person’s entire self-perception. The distress they feel over their self-perceived ugliness becomes so disproportionate that it eventually prevents them from functioning normally. Hospitalizations are not uncommon.  Some people with BDD refuse to leave home and some take their own lives out of despair.

The person with BDD has a brain which is abnormally wired to over-perform the duty of processing minor details. At the same time, the person’s emotional processing about things is also mis-wired. They blow small details out of proportion and over-react emotionally to the perceived blemishes. This intense processing of tiny details could be occurring in other thought patterns as well. The person may be being bogged down by their own mental attention to detail that keeps them from being able to properly process larger concepts.

This research is important as it demonstrates how the disorder is neurologically based. There is a hard-wiring problem that affects how BDD patients think, feel and act. Brain mapping could someday become useful in early diagnosis. The full study report will be available in the May issue of Neuropsychopharmacology.

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