Behavioral Neurobiology of Eating Disorders

Volume 6 of the series Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences pp 59-79


Serotonin: Imaging Findings in Eating Disorders

  • Ursula F. BailerAffiliated withDepartment of Psychiatry, Eating Disorder Treatment and Research Program, University of CaliforniaDepartment of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Division of Biological Psychiatry, Medical University of Vienna
  • , Walter H. KayeAffiliated withDepartment of Psychiatry, Eating Disorder Treatment and Research Program, University of California Email author 

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Anorexia nervosa (AN) and bulimia nervosa (BN) are disorders characterized by aberrant patterns of feeding behavior, weight regulation, and disturbances in attitudes and perceptions toward body weight and shape. Several lines of evidence nominate disturbances of serotonin (5-HT) pathways as playing a role in the pathogenesis and pathophysiology of AN and BN. For example, 5-HT pathways are known to contribute to the modulation of a range of behaviors commonly seen in individuals with AN and BN. New technology using brain imaging with radioligands offers the potential for understanding previously inaccessible brain 5-HT neurotransmitter function and its dynamic relationship with human behaviors. Recent studies using positron emission tomography and single photon emission computed tomography with 5-HT-specific radioligands have consistently shown 5-HT1A and 5-HT2A receptor and 5-HT transporter alterations in AN and BN in cortical and limbic structures, which may be related to anxiety, behavioral inhibition, and body image distortions. These disturbances are present when subjects are ill and persist after recovery, suggesting that these may be traits that are independent of the state of the illness. Effective treatments for AN and BN have been elusive. A better understanding of neurobiology is likely to be important for developing specific and more powerful therapies for these often chronic and deadly disorders.


Anorexia nervosa Bulimia nervosa Serotonin Receptor Transporter Brain imaging PET SPECT