Distorted Self-Image In Body Image Disorder Due To Visual Brain Glitch, Study Suggests
Individuals with BDD fixate on an imagined flaw in appearance or a slight physical abnormality. To fix their "problem," they tend to pursue plastic surgery -- sometimes repeatedly. They often feel ashamed, depressed and anxious, increasing their risk of suicide.
Affecting an estimated two percent of the population, BDD tends to run in families and is especially common in persons with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Thirty percent of people with BDD suffer from eating disorders, which are also linked to a distorted self-image.
Feusner's team compared the BDD patients' responses to 12 control subjects matched by age, gender, education and handedness. What the scientists observed surprised them.
"We saw a clear difference in how the right and left sides of the brain worked in people with BDD versus those without the disorder," noted Feusner.
BDD patients more often used their brain's left side -- the analytic side attuned to complex detail -- even when processing the less intricate, low-frequency images. In contrast, the left sides of the control subjects' brains activated only to interpret the more detailed high-frequency information. Their brains processed the untouched and low-frequency images on the right side, which is geared toward seeing things in their entirety.
"We don't know why BDD patients analyze all faces as if they are high frequency," said Feusner. "The findings suggest that BDD brains are programmed to extract details -- or fill them in where they don't exist. It's possible they are thinking of their own face even when they are looking at others."
Feusner also recently discovered that the more severe the BDD patient's symptoms, the more strongly the brain's left side activates during visual processing. He is currently studying how BDD patients process their own faces in order to explore how emotional arousal may influence visual processing.
"All of these findings indicate that BDD has a biological link and can no longer be attributed solely to our society's focus on appearance," he concluded.
This research was reported in the December edition of the Archives of General Psychiatry.
The study was supported by the Saban Family Foundation, the Neysa Jane BDD Fund and National Institute of Mental Health. Feusner's coauthors included Dr. Susan Bookheimer, Dr. Alexander Bystritsky and Jennifer Townsend, all of UCLA's Semel Institute.