Evidence for a vagal pathophysiology for bulimia nervosa and the accompanying depressive symptoms

Patricia L Faris, Elke D Eckert, Suck Won Kim, William H. Meller, Jose V. Pardo, Robert L. Goodale, Boyd K. Hartman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Scopus citations


Background: The bilateral vagus nerves (Cranial X) provide both afferent and efferent connections between the viscera and the caudal medulla. The afferent branches increasingly are being recognized as providing significant input to the central nervous system for modulation of complex behaviors. In this paper, we review evidence from our laboratory that increases in vagal afferent activity are involved in perpetuating binge-eating and vomiting in bulimia nervosa. Preliminary findings are also presented which suggest that a subgroup of depressions may have a similar pathophysiology. Methods: Two main approaches were used to study the role of vagal afferents. Ondansetron (ONDAN), a 5-HT3 antagonist, was used as a pharmacological tool for inhibiting or reducing vagal afferent neurotransmission. Second, somatic pain detection thresholds were assessed for monitoring a physiological process known to be modulated by vagal afferents, including the gastric branches involved in meal termination and satiety. High levels of vagal activity result in an increase in pain detection thresholds. Depressive symptoms were assessed using the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI). Positron Emission Tomography (PET) was used to identify higher cortical brain areas activated by vagal stimulation produced by proximal gastric distention in normal eating subjects. Results: Double-blind treatment of severe bulimia nervosa subjects with ONDAN resulted in a rapid and significant decrease in binge-eating and vomiting compared to placebo controls. The decrease in abnormal eating episodes was accompanied by a return of normal satiety. Pain detection thresholds measured weekly over the course of the treatment protocol were found to dynamically fluctuate in association with bulimic episodes. Thresholds were the most elevated during periods of short-term abstinence from the behaviors, suggesting that not engaging in a binge/vomit episode is accompanied by an increase in vagal activity. ONDAN also resulted in abolition of the fluctuations in pain thresholds. Depressive symptoms in these subjects also were reduced by ONDAN. Like pain thresholds, depressive symptoms varied dynamically with the bulimic behaviors, with BDI scores increasing (more depressed) as more time elapsed since the last bulimic episode. PET studies indicated that mechanical distention of the stomach with a balloon (a non-nutritive stimulus) was associated with the activation of several brain loci, including those associated with vagal activation (parabrachial nucleus), emotive aspects of eating (lateral inferior frontal and orbitofrontal), and depressive symptoms (anterior cingulate). Conclusions: The results of the ONDAN study in bulimia nervosa subjects suggest that cyclic increases in vagal activity drive the urge to binge-eat and vomit. The alterations in vagal firing patterns are possibly a physiological adaptation to the high levels of vagal stimulation initially provided by voluntarily binge-eating and vomiting for weight control. The depressive symptoms that occur in association with the urge to binge-eat are also likely due to the cyclic increase in vagal activity. This suggestion is supported by the reduction of depressive symptoms during ONDAN treatment in bulimia subjects and PET imaging studies in normal eating subjects showing that brain loci classically involved in depression are activated by vagal stimulation administered by mechanical gastric distention. In normal eating individuals, depressions accompanying visceral diseases may also be vagally mediated. Ondansetron and other drugs known to modulate vagal activity may be helpful in treating depressions of this origin.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)79-90
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Affective Disorders
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 2006

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was funded by NIDDK and ORWH (R01-DK52291) and the Mark A Nugent Research Foundation. A heartfelt thank you is also owed to Ms. Laurie Iversen who contributed in many ways to this research. We would like to acknowledge the outstanding work and invaluable contributions of several student trainees: Kristina Rindal-Borgen, Elke Stephan, Randall Daughters, Jessica Cici, Aaron Grossman, Scott A. Oakman, M.D., Ph.D., Lynn A. Howard, MD, and Randall D. Hofbauer, M.D. The PET study was conducted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Ph.D. degree for Elke Stephan.


  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Depression
  • Vagal pathophysiology


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