The eating disorder anorexia nervosa causes potentially serious eye damage, according to a study published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology.

Anorexia nervosa affects up to 3% of affluent women, and is the third most common chronic disease among teenage women, up to one in 10 of whom will die from it.

Researchers have now analyzed the thickness of the macula and its electrical activity in the eyes of 13 women with anorexia nervosa and in 20 healthy women of the same age.  The average age of the women was 28. Those with anorexia had had their condition for an average of 10 years.

The macula lies in the center of the retina, at the back of the eye, and is responsible for fine detailed central vision and the processing of light.  Tests were done to determine how well the eyes picked up fine detail.

The analysis showed that the macula and the nerve layers feeding it were significantly thinner in the eyes of the women with anorexia nervosa.  There was also significantly less firing of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a key element of the brain’s ability to process visual images.

There even seemed to be differences between women with different patterns of anorexia.  The fovea, the center of the macula that is rich in light sensitive cone cells, was thinner in those women who binged and purged compared to those who simply restricted their calorie intake.

The authors conclude that it is not yet clear whether macular thinning and decreased neurotransmitter activity are the initial stages of progressive blindness or whether these signs will revert back to normal once normal eating patterns are resumed.

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