Bulimia nervosa is characterized by consuming large amounts of food over a defined period with a loss of control over the eating. This is followed by a compensatory behavior directed at eliminating the consumed calories, usually vomiting. Current treatments include antidepressants and/or behavioral therapies. Consensus exists that these treatments are not very effective and are associated with high relapse rates. We review evidence from literature and present original data to evaluate the hypothesis that bulimia involves alterations in vago-vagal function. Evidence in support of this include (1) laboratory studies consistently illustrate deficits in meal size, meal termination, and satiety in bulimia; (2) basic science studies indicate that meal size and satiation are under vagal influences; (3) anatomical, behavioral and physiological data suggest that achieving satiety and the initiation of emesis involve common neural substrates; (4) abnormal vagal and vago-vagal reflexive functions extend to non-eating activational stimuli; and (5) studies from our laboratory modulating vagal activation have shown significant effects on binge/vomit frequencies and suggest a return of normal satiation. We propose a model for the pathophysiology of bulimia based upon de-stabilization of a bi-stable positive vago-vagal feedback loop. This model is not meant to be complete, but rather to stimulate anatomical, psychobiological, and translational neuroscience experiments aimed at elucidating the pathophysiology of bulimia and developing novel treatment strategies.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
Portions of this work were conducted by Randall D. Hofbauer, M.D. in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of Minnesota. His current address is: Singing River Hospital 2809 Denny Avenue, Pascagoula, MS 39581. This work was supported by R01 DK5229103, R03 DK065167, a gift of Vagal Nerve Stimulators from Cyberonics, Inc., and a monetary gift from the Mark A. Nugent Research Foundation.
- De-stabilization of positive feedbacks
- Pathophysiology of bulimia nervosa
- Vagus nerves