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Anorexia nervosa (AN) is characterized by an overgeneralization of food/body-related autobiographical memories (AM). This is regarded as an emotion regulation strategy with adverse long-term effects implicated in disorder maintenance and treatment resistance. Therefore, we aimed to examine neural correlates of food/body-related AM-recall in AN.
Twenty-nine female patients with AN and 30 medication-free age-sex-matched normal-weight healthy controls (HC) underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging while recalling AMs in response to food/body-related and neutral cue words. To control for general knowledge retrieval, participants engaged in a semantic generation and riser detection task.
In comparison to HC, patients with AN generated fewer and less specific AMs in response to food/body-related words, but not for neutral cue words. Group comparisons revealed reduced activation in regions associated with self-referential processing and memory retrieval (precuneus and angular gyrus) during the retrieval of specific food/body-related AM in patients with AN. Brain connectivity in regions associated with memory functioning and executive control was reduced in patients with AN during the retrieval of specific food/body-related AM. Finally, resting-state functional connectivity analysis revealed no differences between groups, arguing against a general underlying disconnection of brain networks implicated in memory and emotional processing in AN.
These results indicate impaired neural processing of food/body-related AM in AN, with a reduced involvement of regions involved in self-referential processing. Our findings are discussed as possible neuronal correlates of emotional avoidance in AN and provide new insights of AN-pathophysiology underscoring the importance of targeting dysfunctional emotion regulation strategies during treatment.
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