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30 March 2015, 11:15
Scientists in Oxford have put electrodes inside a woman's brain to try to cure her of anorexia.
The study, which is being carried out at the John Radcliffe Hospital, is designed to trigger a change in the way the woman feels about food.
They have connected wires carrying electricity to parts of her brain that register her feeling of reward when she eats, in the hope that it will help her overcome her condition.
Professor Tipu Aziz, professor of neurosurgery based at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, stressed the study is in its early stages.
But if successful, he said it could transform the way patients with anorexia and other eating disorders are treated, and save lives.
He said: "Anorexics have a 40 times higher mortality rate compared to the normal population and people forget that. Otherwise healthy people, mostly girls, die of this disease."
Prof Aziz said that "food becomes a very painful object" for anorexics and the part of the brain that makes people enjoy eating does not work in the same way.
He added: "This is a very preliminary study to show that if you put electrodes in the right place you can alter people's reaction to food.
"It is quite a departure in how we think about treating this condition. In the past, people were force-fed and had all sorts of stuff done to them because otherwise a lot of people will die."
The operation costs an estimated £40,000 and involves surgeons putting the patient to sleep and then putting a mounted frame on to their head.
Electrodes which are connected to a pacemaker are then fed into the patient and attached to their brain.
"Nothing happens immediately, we have to look at them over weeks, months, maybe a year," Prof Aziz said.
Around 1.6 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder and 89% of them are female, according to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.
A significant number of those struggling with anorexia reach such a dangerously low weight they end up in hospital, costing the NHS a lot of money.
In the year ending October 2013 hospitals dealt with 2,560 eating disorder admissions, according to figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre.
Prof Aziz said: "A lot of these people are high-functioning young women, we have to help these folks.
"This research could open a whole new door into how we think about treating people with anorexia.
"The cost of anorexia medically is about £100,000 per patient, and how many of them get better? It is a very stubborn illness, intractable. Terrible."
Asked how the woman is doing now, he said: "All I can say is it looks promising."
The pioneering research follows similar operations in China and Canada.
It has been mainly funded by charitable trusts and the Oxford team are hoping to carry out operations on another five patients.
If they are successful, they hope to roll out the research and carry out a larger clinical trial.