Stanford embarks on bulimia study

January 23, 2009 2:02:53 PM PST
The Stanford University School of Medicine is seeking volunteers for what is being touted as the largest study to date of adolescents and bulimia nervosa.

Psychiatrists are seeking 79 teens, male or female, between 12 and 18 years old. Participants must have bulimia nervosa or exhibit significant bulimic behaviors.

While eating disorders generally develop during adolescence, only two prior studies have examined this age group, said Dr. James Lock, a psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor at Stanford and senior investigator for the study. He said this new study will be three times the size of previous trials.

Most eating disorder studies are conducted on adults, according to Lock, because it's easier to find subjects and older patients are more likely to recognize they have a problem.

However adults who participate in these studies usually have suffered from bulimia or other disorders for years, making treatment more challenging, Lock said.

"It's really become a way of life for them, versus someone who has had it for four to five months," he said of the disease.

Stanford is pairing up with the University of Chicago to execute the $2 million study for the National Institutes of Health. Each facility will examine 79 adolescents.

The study will focus on healing distorted body images and unhealthy diet practices. According to Stanford, 1 to 2 percent of adolescents suffer from full-blown bulimia, while another 2 to 3 percent display significant bulimic behaviors.

Subjects will be randomly assigned to undergo one of three different treatment methods. Cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy and individual psychotherapy are all established approaches to treating bulimia. Researchers will compare these three treatments to determine if one approach is more effective.

"Right now if you are a therapist trying to treat kids with bulimia, you're guessing," Lock said.

Finding minors to participate in treatment trials is always a challenge. However Lock noted that the study basically offers free mainstream treatment, administered by "incredibly well-trained psychologists."

Participants must be willing to be assigned to any of the three treatments, and will participate in six months of regular outpatient treatment and one year of follow-up. Families must be willing to participate in interviews as well.

Stanford will be recruiting for the next 18 months, Lock said. Anyone interested in participating should call research assistant Brittany Alvy at (650) 723-9182.