Call for targeted treatment for anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is a global problem responsible for the highest mortality of any psychological condition and experts are now calling for more work to be done to find better targeted treatments for the condition.

Mental health therapy that works

A new paper in The Lancet Psychiatry shows a lack of strong evidence to support current guidance on psychological therapies for treating anorexia nervosa over expert treatment as usual.

The findings highlight a need for further research and support a call for individual trial data to be made available so the benefits of treatments in specific patient populations can be better understood.

Conducted by an international team of clinical experts and researchers, the analysis included 13 randomised controlled trials and a total of 1049 patients.

The studies compared psychological therapies to treatment as usual in adults receiving outpatient treatment for anorexia. The trials measured eating disorder symptoms, body-mass index (BMI) and all-cause dropout rate up to 52 weeks of follow up.

The analysis found some therapies to have modest benefit to patients. However, the therapies, currently recommended by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) and in clinical guidelines internationally, were not shown to differ significantly from expert treatment as usual.

Addressing the gaps in treatment is key

“Understanding the effectiveness of available treatments is particularly important for anorexia nervosa because it has one of the highest mortality rates of any psychiatric condition. This analysis highlights the gaps in existing evidence and the urgent need for more and better research into psychological therapies for treating anorexia,” says University of Oxford Professor Andrea Cipriani, the lead author on the project.

Because of the relatively low quality and quantity of data available, this analysis should be understood as exploratory rather than confirmatory. However, it highlights the shortcomings of existing research and emphasises the need for more robust data.

Flinders University Matthew Flinders Professor of Psychiatry Tracey Wade, a lead collaborator on the project, says: “We have made progress in understanding the effective non-specific factors that need to be included in any treatment for anorexia nervosa.

“Our future challenge is to develop treatment factors tailored to individual presentations that can be added to the non-specific factors to increase effectiveness of our treatments for the condition.”

  • The psychological interventions included in the analysis include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), family-oriented treatments, psychodynamic treatments, and other treatments such as Maudsley anorexia nervosa treatment for adults (MANTRA) and specialist supportive clinical management (SSCM).
  • Treatment at usual varied between the trials included in the analysis and can involve several components delivered by many people. The poor description of treatment as usual was a limitation observed in most of the trials included in the analysis.

The UK-led research was funded by the NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre, the University of Oxford and Flinders University.