(NBC) - Two Brigham Young University researchers say they knew what to expect while studying those who struggle with eating disorders, but were fascinated by what happened in the brains of those who said they have healthy body images.
The researchers conducted the study to help people who have eating disorders.
Ninety-five percent of those who struggle with anorexia and bulimia are women.
As each participant looked at the body images, the researchers were able to look at the activation happening in their brains.
"These parts of the brain are involved in vision, seeing and this part is involved in some decision making," said Mark Allen, a neuroscientist working on the study as he described the MRI images.
After gathering MRI images from those patients, they brought in a control group for comparison, made up of women and men who said they had no body image problems.
What the researchers saw in their brains was surprising.
"When we scanned the women, they actually show that they were very concerned about being overweight or seeing overweight images, where the men were not at all," explained Dr. Diane Spangler, BYU associate professor of psychology.
The women who didn't suffer from eating disorders showed anxiety about weight, which showed up in their MRI images.
"It suggests that there is a disconnection between a conscious evaluation of your body image and really what's going on deep down inside psychologically and now we can see, neurologically," Allen added.
The professors' research, published in the psychology journal "Personality and Individual Differences," shows how close many other women are to those with eating disorders.
"There is so much bombardment of this 'thin ideal' and what your weight should be," Spangler said, "that it's showing up in the brains of women, even with women who don't feel like this is a concern for them."
Their research goes forward for patients with eating disorders.
The professors say the good news is that through therapy, brain structures can change and people can heal.