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Physiol Behav. 2008 Apr 22;94(1):136-53. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2007.11.036. Epub 2007 Nov 28.

De-stabilization of the positive vago-vagal reflex in bulimia nervosa.

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Department of Psychiatry, Division of Neuroscience Research, University of Minnesota Medical School, Minneapolis MN 55455, United States.


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.

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