The people we encounter early in life can often have a profound impact on our future. For Massachusetts General Hospital psychologist Dr. Kamryn Eddy, a childhood friend influenced her career trajectory.
“I had a close friend in high school who had anorexia,” says Dr. Eddy. “As a result, she had a number of health concerns, including osteoporosis, and was told at age 16 that she would never be able to have children.”
She recalls being shocked that a doctor would give such a definitive and dire prognosis to someone so young. Eddy has kept in touch with her friend, who found help for her eating disorder and was eventually able to recover. Her friend now has a healthy young daughter.
“That early experience was one of my introductions to the world of eating disorders,” says Eddy. “Seeing my friend’s battle and eventual recovery from her illness also showed me that there can be hope for people suffering from eating disorders.”
Research and Clinical Care
Eddy’s belief in the potential for recovery is not just based on the experiences of a childhood friend—it is backed up by scientific evidence as well.
She is part of a research team that recently published the results of a longitudinal study that followed 246 women with anorexia and bulimia for 22 years. The study found that two-thirds of women eventually recovered from their eating disorders over the course of two decades. More specifically, 63 percent of individuals with anorexia and 68 percent of those with bulimia recovered.
This exciting discovery provides hope for the millions of men and women nationwide who have been on a long and winding road to recovery for years. The findings also shift perceptions about eating disorders, which are often viewed as a life sentence.
Eddy tries to instill this sense of hope in her patients through her work as co-director of the Eating Disorders Clinical and Research Program (EDCRP) at Mass General.
Eddy, along with program co-director Jennifer Thomas, PhD, and their EDCRP staff see about 200 new patients each year at the outpatient clinic. The program offers family-based treatment for adolescents, cognitive behavioral therapy for adolescents and adults, group therapy and psychopharmacology services.
“At the EDCRP we see patients who have often exhausted their other treatment options after having been ill for quite some time,” says Eddy. “To be able to tell them that they can still get better, even after 10+ years of being sick, is a really hopeful and positive message that is not often given.”
Eddy has also seen positive results in her younger patients. In addition to her clinical work, she uses fMRI to study the brain activity of kids and adolescents with low weight eating disorders and map the short- and long-term recovery trajectories of these patients. This project is a collaboration with Mass General teammates Madhusmita Misra, MD, and Elizabeth Lawson, MD.
“Kids and adolescents are at the greatest risk for developing eating disorders,” explains Eddy. “With our adolescent brain study, which follows 10-22 year olds with low weight eating disorders, we can catch them early in their diagnosis. Fortunately, we’ve found that many of them will recover during the course of about 18 months of follow up.”
Treating a New Wave of Eating Disorders
Eddy is also investigating whether patients suffering from a relatively new type of eating disorder known as ARFID — avoidance restrictive food intake disorder — will eventually recover.
Eddy explains that ARFID is not just picky eating, but rather a clinically significant form of very selective eating that can develop as a result of low appetite, strong sensory preferences, traumatic experiences with food, or any combination of these and other factors. For example, a child who had a frightening episode of choking may become anxious about eating solid foods and avoid them.
“In working with kids who have AFRID, I’ve found that their illness is very different from the more typical eating disorders,” says Eddy. “ARFID is a big problem that not enough people are talking about.”
To explore treatment options and raise awareness of this disorder, Eddy and Thomas are piloting a cognitive behavioral therapy technique for ARFID that will be published in a manual next year.
Her team is also conducting some of the same fMRI-based neurobiological assessments used in the adolescent brain study on ARFID patients to measure changes in brain function as a result of treatment.
Support from the Mass General Research Community
Eddy says that many of the advancements she has made with her research, especially in regards to her adolescent brain study, would not have been possible without the Claflin Distinguished Scholar Award she received in 2015.
Named after Jane Claflin, a longtime Mass General volunteer, activist and honorary trustee, the Claflin Awards were established in 1997 to provide financial support for women researchers as they balance the dual demands of career and family.
“My son was 20 months old when I applied for a Claflin Award,” Eddy recalls. “With a child, I had a much stricter schedule and I needed extra staff support to complete my projects.”
Eddy’s Claflin funding resulted in a domino effect of positive outcomes. For one, she was able to hire a research assistant who went on to get their own fellowship from the NIH. The fellowship not only provided Eddy with valuable mentorship experience, but it also freed up her Claflin funds to hire an additional part-time postdoc.
“There’s just no way that any of that could have happened without the support of the Claflin,” says Eddy. “It is such a special award that was instrumental to me and, I think, to all of the female investigators who have been awarded this honor.”