The Future of TMS: Treating Eating Disorders

Eating disorders affect more than 9% of the population. Second to opioid overdose, they are one of the deadliest mental illnesses. According to studies by Smink, van Hoeken, and Hoek, and Fichter and Quadflieg, anorexia increases your risk of dying by ten compared to same-aged peers between 15 and 24 years old. Overall, there’s approximately one death every 52 minutes directly due to an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are a complex interaction of genetic, behavioral, psychological, biological, and social factors, so treating them is challenging. Current methods include talk therapy, medications, and intense inpatient programs for severe cases. Newer research is showing some eating disorder patients are finding relief from noninvasive transcranial magnetic brain stimulation (TMS.)

What Are Eating Disorders?

Many people suffer from disordered eating at some point in their life. You may be concerned with your body’s appearance, specific curves, and weight. However, you do not have an eating disorder until these unhealthy thoughts turn into dangerous eating or dieting patterns. There are several different types of eating disorders:

1. Anorexia Nervosa

If you have anorexia, you have an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of how your body looks. Even when very slender, you can think you are overweight or fat. You may use extreme measures to control your weight and shape. Typically, efforts focus on a daily calorie deficit by restricting your intake and increasing your energy consumption through movement and exercise. You may experience an unhealthy amount of weight loss. You can become dangerously thin, and it can be life-threatening.

2. Bulimia Nervosa

Similarly to anorexia, you may be very preoccupied with weight and body shape. You may use strict dieting, fasting, and excessive exercise to control your weight. However, you will also secretly binge on large amounts of food and lose control over the amount you consume. Then, you purge to avoid the calorie intake. Bulimia is associated with self-induced vomiting, but you can also misuse weight loss supplements, laxatives, diuretics, or enemas to purge.

3. Binge-Eating Disorder

This disorder has the binge component of bulimia without the purging element. You can feel a lack of control in your life, especially regarding the food you consume. You may eat quickly or more food than you intended, continuing to eat well after you’re uncomfortably full.

More disorders include body dysmorphia, rumination disorder, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder. However, research currently focuses on treating anorexia or bulimia nervosa and, hopefully, will expand from there.

What Is TMS?

Predominantly used to treat the major depressive disorder, transcranial magnetic stimulation is a noninvasive and nonsystemic therapy for mood and other illnesses. During treatment, TMS providers will place an electromagnetic coil on your scalp. Then MRI-like pulses stimulate your brain’s nerve cells, called neurons, in the part of your brain affecting your disorder. This stimulation increases activity, restoring normal function. So if you’re using it for depression, you should see a decrease in depression symptoms and improved moods.

One significant benefit is that you can have TMS in an outpatient setting without medication. Since it’s drug-free, you will have limited complications. Some patients reported short-term side effects, including tiredness, headache, or scalp discomfort from the sensation created by the magnet.

How Does TMS Brain Stimulation Treat Eating Disorders?

You can also have depression or anxiety with your eating disorder, which TMS already treats. Some of the current research started because of accidental findings. For example, this clinical case study presents a woman who had severe bulimia nervosa with depression. She underwent TMS for her depression. After the alternative depression treatment, her bulimia of over 20 years resolved.

Accidental discoveries like this one, combined with more research on the neural pathways of eating disorders, are leading more researchers to investigate the efficacy of TMS treatment. For example, this pilot trial found that a six-week treatment of TMS improved the thoughts about weight, shape, and eating in patients with anorexia nervosa. Another study found that concurrent antidepressant medication with TMS reduced eating disorder symptoms for patients with severe and enduring anorexia nervosa.

While most research focuses on anorexia and bulimia nervosa, this meta-analysis found that TMS significantly improved obesity and body mass index, which could be promising for binge-eating disorder. The more researchers learn about mental illnesses and how TMS works, the more disorders TMS can treat or cure.

To be very clear, the FDA has not yet approved TMS therapy for treating any eating disorders. Research is ongoing as further tests and studies are needed to ensure the treatment will help the condition. However, TMS’s future is promising for helping cure disordered eating. Stay current for when TMS becomes available for treating anorexia, bulimia, and more. In the meantime, you can have TMS for existing depression or anxiety, so speak to a provider to see if you are a good candidate for TMS.