Swinburne study uncovers why people suffer body dysmorphia disorder

Sunday 17 August 2014

The square Swinburne logo on the west side of the Advanced Manufacturing and Design Centre building in Hawthorn.

A new study by Swinburne University of Technology has discovered that the size of a person’s brain – not societal pressures – is the underlying cause of a body-image disorder.

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a mental health condition characterised by an individual’s fixation with a misperceived flaw in appearance, causing significant distress.

Research led by cognitive neuropsychologist Professor Susan Rossell from Swinburne looked at magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data from patients with BDD.

‘What we found when we looked at regional brain volumes of BDD participants was that the frontal regions of their brain were substantially smaller than healthy participants,’ said Professor Rossell.

‘The most pronounced differences were in the right orbitofrontal cortex and left anterior cingulate cortex, regions important for things like planning and integration of information, as well as emotion.

‘The data is telling us that people with this disorder are unable to integrate the vision of themselves. They are not really looking properly at their misperceived flaw.’

Professor Rossell worked closely with Professor David Castle from St Vincent’s Hospital Body Image clinic in Melbourne. The clinic has the largest cohort of BDD patients in Australia.

Forty individuals were recruited; 20 individuals with BDD and 20 healthy controls, aged between 19 and 64 years.

BDD is now starting to coming out of the shadows, with many celebrities speaking out about their ‘hidden’ disease.

‘One of the things we found was that most people who come to the clinic have had the disorder for 10 –20 years,’ said Professor Rossell.

‘Instead of going to see a mental health professional, they go to plastic surgeons and dermatologists, which is not treating the underlying problem.

‘Professor Castle has conducted numerous studies with plastic surgeons that has shown the success rate of BDD clients is very small, because the clients never see any change.’

This research will change the way in which BDD patients are treated. Professor Rossell and Professor Castle are starting to work on a visual training package, incorporating the use of eye tracking information.

‘What we want to do with the training package is teach people with BDD that there is nothing wrong with them,’ said Professor Rossell.