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Previous studies have highlighted the role of the brain reward and cognitive control systems in the etiology of anorexia nervosa (AN). In an attempt to disentangle the relative contribution of these systems to the disorder, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate hemodynamic responses to reward-related stimuli presented both subliminally and supraliminally in acutely underweight AN patients and age-matched healthy controls (HC).
fMRI data were collected from a total of 35 AN patients and 35 HC, while they passively viewed subliminally and supraliminally presented streams of food, positive social, and neutral stimuli. Activation patterns of the group×stimulation condition×stimulus type interaction were interrogated to investigate potential group differences in processing different stimulus types under the two stimulation conditions. Moreover, changes in functional connectivity were investigated using generalized psychophysiological interaction analysis.
AN patients showed a generally increased response to supraliminally presented stimuli in the inferior frontal junction (IFJ), but no alterations within the reward system. Increased activation during supraliminal stimulation with food stimuli was observed in the AN group in visual regions including superior occipital gyrus and the fusiform gyrus/parahippocampal gyrus. No group difference was found with respect to the subliminal stimulation condition and functional connectivity.
Increased IFJ activation in AN during supraliminal stimulation may indicate hyperactive cognitive control, which resonates with clinical presentation of excessive self-control in AN patients. Increased activation to food stimuli in visual regions may be interpreted in light of an attentional food bias in AN.
Patients with anorexia nervosa (AN) are characterized by a very low body weight but readily give up immediate rewards (food) for long-term goals (slim figure), which might indicate an unusual level of self-control. This everyday clinical observation may be quantifiable in the framework of the anticipation-discounting dilemma.
Using a cross-sectional design, this study compared the capacity to delay reward in 34 patients suffering from acute AN (acAN), 33 weight-recovered AN patients (recAN) and 54 healthy controls. We also used a longitudinal study to reassess 21 acAN patients after short-term weight restoration. A validated intertemporal choice task and a hyperbolic model were used to estimate temporal discounting rates.
Confirming the validity of the task used, decreased delay discounting was associated with age and low self-reported impulsivity. However, no group differences in key measures of temporal discounting of monetary rewards were found.
Increased cognitive control, which has been suggested as a key characteristic of AN, does not seem to extend the capacity to wait for delayed monetary rewards. Differences between our study and the only previous study reporting decreased delay discounting in adult AN patients may be explained by the different age range and chronicity of acute patients, but the fact that weight recovery was not associated with changes in discount rates suggests that discounting behavior is not a trait marker in AN. Future studies using paradigms with disorder-specific stimuli may help to clarify the role of delay discounting in AN.
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