UCSD recruits local families for anorexia study


By Kate Kowsh

In an effort to determine the most effective family treatment plan for anorexia nervosa, a team at UCSD’s Eating Disorders Research and Treatment Program has joined with other leading authorities in an international research study, the largest of its kind to date.

The program has already started enrolling local families of adolescent anorexia patients in family therapy clinical trials, according to Roxanne Rockwell, UC San Diego Eating Disorders Program research manager and Intensive Family Therapy Program coordinator.

“We hope to recruit over 40 families in the San Diego area in the next two years,” she said. “We will be offering this family therapy at no cost, which is key since treatment of anorexia nervosa can be so expensive.”

The UCSD team will be led by Dr. Walter Kaye, professor of psychiatry and director of the UC San Diego Eating Disorders Program.

UCSD will work in cooperation with six other sites, located nationwide and in Canada, to recruit 240 families with 12- to 18-year-old adolescents with anorexia to participate in trials for this study over the next two years.

Stanford University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences will serve as a data collection site.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, “anorexia nervosa is a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss.” The site ( also stated that its symptoms typically appear during adolescence and has one of the highest death rates of any mental health condition.

“Early treatment is most successful to prevent chronic anorexia nervosa,” Rockwell said.

Rockwell explained that the study will experiment with two psychological treatments, systemic family therapy and a “Maudsley-based” behavioral family therapy, to determine which is most effective.

“We don’t know which family therapy is best for which types of family and adolescents at this point,” she explained. “Really, we’re using two types of treatment that have been shown to be effective, and we’re trying to find out which one works best.

“We absolutely believe that family therapy is the way to go with anorexia nervosa. You would be surprised. Many practitioners keep the parents out of treatment and work just with the adolescents.

“In fact, I was just talking to a mom who said her therapist thought she was the problem. Her therapist said that they didn’t need family therapy and they did not want to involve the parents in the treatment.”

Rockwell said that families need to be educated in addition to the patient on how to fight anorexia.

“The adolescent is treated but then goes home to the same environment where the parents don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “The parents are suffering just as much as the adolescent, so the family as a whole needs the treatment. They’re suffering because they do feel like they’re to blame, that this is all their fault, they could have, should have done something different, and that’s just not the case.”

Rockwell further explained that people with anorexia nervosa are predisposed to certain traits and temperaments like perfectionism, anxiety and harm avoidance.

The study will also look at the effectiveness of using the drug Fluoxetine combined with family therapy to treat the disorder.

For more information on this study and anorexia, visit