Visual Processing Plays Role in Body Dysmorphic Disorder

WEDNESDAY Feb. 3, 2010 -- The brains of people with a psychiatric condition called body dysmorphic disorder -- which causes them to believe they're disfigured and ugly -- respond differently than normal to images of their face, U.S. researchers have found.

People with the disorder, also called BDD, are preoccupied with defects in their appearance. BDD affects 1 percent to 2 percent of the population, and many patients become distressed and are unable to function normally. About half are hospitalized at some point in their life and about one-quarter attempt suicide, according to background information in the study.

In the study, published in the February issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, functional MRI was used to scan the brains of 17 BDD patients and 16 healthy volunteers while they looked at photos of two faces, their own and that of a familiar actor.

Compared to the healthy volunteers, the BDD patients had abnormal brain activity in regions associated with visual processing when they looked at the photo of their own face. They also had unusual activity patterns in their frontostriatal systems, which helps control behavior and maintain emotional flexibility.

Activity in both brain systems correlated with the severity of a BDD patient's symptoms. The researchers also found that differences in frontostriatal system activity were associated with how disgusting or repulsive BDD patients found the photos.

The abnormal brain activation patterns indicate that people with BDD have difficulty perceiving or processing general information about faces, according to Dr. Jamie D. Feusner and colleagues at the David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles.

"Clinically, this may account for the impaired ability to perceive the visual gestalt, contributing to distorted perceptions of the individuals' appearance when viewing their face. The individuals may primarily perceive details and are impaired in their ability to contextualize them configurally or holistically," Feusner and colleagues wrote.

More information

The Nemours Foundation has more about body dysmorphic disorder.

Posted: February 2010


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