Internet-based Treatment of Bulimia Study Under Way at WPIC

Issue Date: 
October 27, 2008


The Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic  (WPIC) of UPMC is participating in a new study comparing the effectiveness of online cognitive behavioral therapy, delivered through a Web site and augmented with therapist-moderated, weekly online chat sessions, to that of face-to-face group therapy for the treatment of bulimia nervosa.

Bulimia is an eating disorder characterized by recurrent and frequent episodes of excessive overeating and purging behaviors. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately one in a hundred people suffer from the disorder.

“For people with bulimia, frequent face-to-face cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, has long been considered the gold standard of treatment,” said Marsha D. Marcus, professor of psychiatry and psychology and service chief of the Center for Overcoming Problem Eating at WPIC, and principal investigator at the Pittsburgh site. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) also is taking part in the study.

“For several different reasons, CBT does not reach everyone who needs treatment, including people who live in remote areas; people who cringe at the thought of driving to, and parking at, a medical center; and people for whom the price of gas is an obstacle,” added Marcus.

To overcome these challenges, study investigators have developed a Web site that will deliver the same content as traditional, manual-based cognitive behavioral therapy while also using the sound, animation, and video capabilities of the Internet.

Half of the study participants will receive CBT with weekly face-to-face group therapy sessions over a 20-week period. The other half will receive Web-based CBT with weekly online group-therapy chat sessions. The chat sessions will be hosted on a secure server and moderated by experienced therapists at both WPIC and UNC. Chat session participants will meet in person with the moderator in the early stages of the study, before the online chats begin. To measure the effectiveness of the intervention, follow-up assessments for each participant will be conducted at three-, six-, and 12-month intervals after the end of treatment.

This study will allow the researchers to test several hypotheses, including whether the Internet-based therapy will be as effective as traditional CBT in reducing binge eating and purging and whether the Internet therapy will reduce the attrition or dropout rate among study participants.

This study is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health with additional funding from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

For additional information about the study, go to