The eating disorder anorexia nervosa is linked to one of the highest suicide and fatality rates, so news of a possible treatment is welcome news. Research has shown that heartbeats can be used to trigger a strange "out-of-body" experience that may be helpful in the treatment of the disorder.
Volunteers were made to feel as if they inhabited an image of their own body two metres away from where they were actually standing.
The trick was to synchronise a flashing bright outline surrounding the virtual image with participants' heartbeat, in real time.
This caused the volunteers to become strongly identified with their body double. Not only did they perceive the image as "real" but they felt located in a different place, closer to the virtual body than the physical one.
Volunteers also experienced the sensation of touch some distance away from their physical body.
However, the news must be treated cautiously, says Susan Ringwood, Chief Executive of BEAT, the Beating Eating Disorders charity.
Talking to HuffPost UK Lifestyle, she said: “There is world class research investigating the causes of eating disorders and their effective treatments, but there is still much to learn before we know what works for individuals. This study may help give some insight into an aspect of the complex, challenging condition, but it too soon to raise anyone’s hopes about a treatment based on this study alone.”
In 2012, hospital admissions for eating disorders in the UK had risen by 16%, reported the BBC. Social media has been blamed for the increase, especially among young people, and it has the highest mortality rate out of all mental illnesses.
Study leader Dr Jane Aspell, senior lecturer in psychology at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, said: "This research demonstrates that the experience of one's self can be altered when presented with information about the internal state of one's body, such as a heartbeat.
HOW TO SPOT THE SIGNS OF ANOREXIA:
- Severe weight loss
- Wanting to be left alone
- Intense fear of gaining weight
- Periods stopping (Amenorrhoea)
- Wearing big baggy clothes
- Excessive exercising
- Difficulty sleeping
- Lying about eating meals
"This is compatible with the theory that the brain generates our experience of self by merging information about our body from multiple sources including the eyes, the skin, the ears and even one's internal organs."
Dr Aspell hopes the research, published in the journal Psychological Science, may help people with psychological problems involving distorted self-perception such as anorexia nervosa and body dysmorphic disorder.
She is now working on a study of how the self perception of "yo-yo" dieters changes as they gain and lose weight.
"Patients with anorexia, for example, have a disconnection from their own body. They look in the mirror and think they are larger than they actually are. This may be because their brain does not update its representation of the body after losing weight, and the patient is therefore stuck with a perception of a larger self that is out of date," said Dr Aspell.
"This experiment could be adapted to help people 'reconnect' with their current physical appearance. It could help them realise what the 'real me' actually looks like."
For advice on eating disorders call Beat. For the Adult Helpline dial - 18001 0845 634 1414 and for the Youthline dial - 18001 0845 634 7650.