'Electrical impulses changed my bulimia brain'

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Image caption,
Philippa has weighed all the food she eats for many years and became isolated socially

Philippa Lalor says bulimia has stolen the past 15 years of her life.

She was 19 years old and studying medicine in Aberdeen when too much partying saw her fall behind in her studies.

Feeling alone and unsure of her future, she started regulating her food to regain a sense of control.

She says her eating-disorder thoughts literally appeared on one date: 5 November 2002.

"From that day until now, I have counted every calorie I've eaten," she says.

"It was like on that day in November, everything suddenly changed."

What developed was an all-consuming obsession that has since ruled her life.

It has been a "full time, seven day a week, constant battle," she says.

As part of her condition, she hoards food until its way past its use-by date.

In her kitchen, there are cupboards full of spoiled food.

Food obsession

"There's food that's been in here for years.," she says.

"I've probably got enough if there's ever a nuclear explosion."

She hoards food out of fear of being hungry.

But she would never actually consume any of it, as she only ever eats white fish and vegetables.

And, without fail, she weighs everything she eats.

She has three sets of scales.

Two are precise and electronic, which she uses to compare measurements.

And the third, which does not require batteries, is there to provide back-up - but only in the most desperate of circumstances.

"It makes me absolutely terrified," Ms Lalor says.

"Even if it means going on a bus to the 24-hour Tesco to get a battery, I'm going to get a battery."

She says the condition has left her isolated and made it almost impossible to maintain friendships.

"At times it's been very difficult to be social because every social situation has food - even a coffee," she says.

Electrical impulses

This cycle of food obsession and social isolation was something she struggled to break, but new research from King's College London is providing a sense of hope.

Conducted by Maria Kekic for her doctorate, it involves using electricity to stimulate a part of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

Located toward the front of the brain, it is associated with impulsivity or self-control.

Participants, including Ms Lalor, were shown videos of food, and their urge to binge eat was measured.

Electrical impulses were then applied to their brains, via small electrodes placed on their foreheads.

Those who received the signals to the brain area, rather than the placebo, then demonstrated less urge to binge and greater self-control in subsequent tests.

But it is a long way from being prescribed as a treatment.

"It is important to remember that this trial is very early days in the research," says Ms Kekic.

"It was just a single session, so we're only looking at the temporary effects of brain stimulation

"The next step would be to carry out, over the course of several weeks, daily sessions to see if this has long-lasting effects on symptoms."

'My brain felt different'

What is encouraging is that the stimulation has already proven effective in treating related conditions such as depression, schizophrenia and substance abuse disorders.

And Ms Lalor found it worked for her, even if only for a few hours.

"I just came out and my brain felt completely differently," she says.

"It was like something had switched and it was back into being how I remember it, when I was an early teenager."

And perhaps most importantly, taking part in the programme has alleviated some of her shame about having a mental illness.

"This treatment was the one time, the only time, that I've been genuinely able to believe that this was part of my brain," she says, "that it is not just me being lazy.

"And even that is enough to change my whole perception of myself, my self-confidence and my self-esteem."