Eating disorders can be difficult to diagnose, often because patients don't realize they have a problem or they try to hide it. But researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU) say they've developed a new test that can determine whether someone is struggling with conditions such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

"Your body records your eating habits in the hair. So, we can use that to tell the nutritional health of an individual." As hair grows, new proteins are added to the base of each strand, pushing the strand up and out of the hair follicle. These proteins are influenced by what you eat. So, each strand of hair is a chemical "diary" that is a record of day-to-day nutrition, said lead researcher Kent Hatch, an assistant professor of integrative biology at BYU.

How It Works

The new test analyzes two molecules, carbon and nitrogen. Based on the makeup of these molecules, the researchers said they've been able to diagnose eating disorders.

"By taking some hairs from an individual and analyzing it for carbon and nitrogen, we can tell with 80% accuracy whether someone has anorexia or bulimia," Hatch said. "The test provides an objective way of discerning whether they have an eating disorder."

The goal of the study was to see if the molecular patterns differed between people with eating disorders and those with normal eating behaviors. The test was so powerful that it required only five strands of hair, Hatch said.

"With further work, we hope to not only use the test as a diagnostic tool but be able to use it to help monitor a person's recovery," he said.

"This test might be an auxiliary test, because right now we don't have good biological markers of anorexia nervosa," said Cynthia M. Bulik, the William and Jeanne Jordan Distinguished Professor of Eating Disorders and director of the eating disorders program at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

Anorexia and Dopamine

Anorexia may be caused by dopamine overactivity in the brain.

Recent finding: Anorexia nervosa sufferers may have increased chemical activity in their dopamine receptors, which control reward and reinforcement. Dopamine affects how individuals respond to stimuli and how positive and negative reinforcement are viewed. This may explain why women with anorexia don't get any pleasure from losing weight.

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