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UK funders invest £4.25m into new eating disorders research

More than £4 million in new eating disorders research funding was announced yesterday, thanks to an investment by UK funders including the AHRC, ESRC and MRC.

Eating disorders are thought to impact around 1.25 million people in the UK, although this number is likely to be significantly higher following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the devastating impact of eating disorders, our understanding of what drives them to develop is still limited, and research funding is scarce.

Joint funding commitment

This new joint funding commitment is from the:

  • Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
  • Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
  • Medical Research Council (MRC)
  • Medical Research Foundation
  • National Institute for Health and Care Research

It aims to address the ‘vicious cycle of underfunding’ highlighted in a 2021 report, compiled by Beat, on behalf of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eating Disorders.

Enhance knowledge and understanding

The newly funded projects will be led by researchers from:

  • King’s College London
  • University College London (UCL)
  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Edinburgh

They will enhance knowledge and understanding of the biological, psychological and social causes of eating disorders, to help improve treatments and prevention strategies.

Increase collaborative working

They will also increase collaboration between scientists in the field, as well as involving researchers who usually focus on other conditions.

All the funded projects have shown a strong commitment to involving people with lived experience of eating disorders, both in the development and implementation stages of the research.

Long-term commitment

Dr Angela Hind, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Foundation, said:

Eating disorders have grown in scale and severity during the pandemic, yet research investment continues to languish behind the already limited funding available for other mental health conditions.

We’re thrilled to be co-funding these new collaborations, which are part of the Medical Research Foundation’s long-term commitment to tackling eating disorders through research.

We hope this new joint investment breaks the cycle of underfunding in eating disorders research, and most importantly, that discoveries from these collaborations help to improve the lives of people with eating disorders.

Further information

Funded projects

Eating Disorders Clinical Research Network

Professor Gerome Breen and Dr Karina Allen, King’s College London

UK eating disorder services are facing unprecedented demand, with effective care and treatment hampered by inadequate resources, fragmented services and variable care pathways. There is a critical need to develop better care pathways and treatments, to improve outcomes for people with eating disorders.

Professor Gerome Breen and Dr Karina Allen will work with the eating disorders research teams at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience and other centres nationally. Together, they will establish a UK-wide NHS research network spanning child and adult eating disorder services.

The project aims to bring together child, adult, inpatient, and outpatient NHS eating disorder services to facilitate novel research collaborations. Research data will be open to all researchers, and a collaborative network will aid the development of future clinical trials.

The environment and eating disorders: developing novel measures and hypotheses through inter-disciplinary collaborations

Dr Francesca Solmi, UCL

Around 6% of women and 2% of men experience anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or other specified feeding and eating disorders. However, researchers still know little about who has eating disorders in the population and what causes these conditions.

To improve the data available on eating disorders in the general population, the researchers will conduct studies using the Age of Wonder Cohort, a large study of 30,000 adolescents. They will also explore the role of shifting societal risk factors. In particular, which aspects of urban environments (for example, green spaces, deprivation, and food environments), sleep problems, and loneliness could contribute to the development of eating disorders.

Finally, the impact of social media and schools will be explored, to see whether measures can be put in place to reduce the risk of young people developing eating disorders.

Enhancing eating disorder research networks: the Eating Disorders and Autism Collaborative (EDAC)

Dr Karri Gillespie-Smith and Dr Fiona Duffy, University of Edinburgh

There is a pressing need for new research focusing on eating disorders in autistic people, involving wider and more diverse collaborations.

We need to better understand what it’s like to be an autistic person with an eating disorder including:

  • what makes some autistic people more vulnerable to eating disorders than others
  • the mechanisms that underpin this
  • potential targets for intervention

Thanks to this funding, the researchers will host a new UK-wide interdisciplinary network at the University of Edinburgh. This aims to facilitate collaborations with people with lived experience, academia (including peer researchers), the third sector, policymakers and clinicians.

The priorities for this network will be set and steered by autistic individuals with experience of disordered eating. The researchers aim to increase research capacity and career development by supporting early career and peer researchers, elevating the next generation of eating disorder researchers.

An anthropological approach to eating disorders: developing a socio-cultural strategy for research, treatment and prevention

Dr Anna Lavis, University of Birmingham

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eating Disorders recently highlighted significant gaps in knowledge about the experiences and needs of people with eating disorders.

Addressing them requires two key things: firstly, research priorities need to be set, and research undertaken, in collaboration with people with lived experience. Secondly, there is a need to understand how socio-cultural contexts and social and mental health inequalities impact experiences, access to services and outcomes.

This project will draw together an anthropological approach, with co-production, to undertake a range of capacity building, networking and research activities.

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