Updated 06 May 2013

Brain wiring explains obsession with looks

Scans show abnormal circuitry in people who fixate on their imperfections, whether real or imagined.


Abnormal brain wiring may explain why some people become so fixated on their appearance that their obsession makes it hard for them to function, a new study suggests.

The study included people with body dysmorphic disorder, a mental illness that causes people to believe they are disfigured and ugly, even though they look normal.

These patients have abnormal network-wiring patterns across the brain, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), researchers discovered. Earlier UCLA research showed that people with body dysmorphic disorder process visual information abnormally. In line with that finding, this study revealed that people with this disorder have abnormal connections between brain regions involved in visual and emotional processing.

The findings, published in the May issue of the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, suggest that abnormal brain wiring in people with body dysmorphic disorder may cause impaired information processing.

Compulsive behaviours

"We found a strong correlation between low efficiency of connections across the whole brain and the severity of [body dysmorphic disorder]," study senior author Jamie Feusner, an associate professor of psychiatry, said in a university news release.

"The less efficient patients' brain connections, the worse the symptoms, particularly for compulsive behaviours, such as checking mirrors."

For the study, the researchers examined brain scans of 14 adults with body dysmorphic disorder and 16 adults without the disorder.

The findings advance the understanding of body dysmorphic disorder by providing evidence that the "hard wiring" of patients' brain networks is abnormal, Feusner said.

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

Body dysmorphic disorder affects about 2% of the population. People with the condition fixate on minor or imagined flaws in their appearance - such as a blemish on their face - and some become so distraught that they can't lead normal lives.

More information

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has more about body dysmorphic disorder.

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