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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.
Restrictive food intake in anorexia nervosa (AN) has been related to an overactive cognitive control network inhibiting intuitive motivational responses to food stimuli. However, the influence of short-term homeostatic signaling on the neural regulation of cue-induced food craving in AN is still unclear.
Twenty-five women with AN and 25 matched normal-weight women were examined on two occasions after receiving either glucose or water directly into their stomach using a nasogastric tube. Participants were blinded to the type of infusion. An event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging paradigm was used to investigate the effect of intestinal glucose load on neural processing during either simple viewing or distraction from food stimuli.
Neural differences between patients with AN and normal-weight participants were found during the distraction from food stimuli, but not during the viewing condition. When compared to controls, patients with AN displayed increased activation during food distraction in the left parietal lobule/precuneus and fusiform gyrus after water infusion and decreased activation in ventromedial prefrontal and cingulate regions after intestinal glucose load.
Independent of the cephalic phase and the awareness of caloric intake, homeostatic influences trigger disorder-specific reactions in AN. Food distraction in patients with AN is associated with either excessive higher-order cognitive control during physiological hunger or decreased internally directed attention after intestinal glucose load. These findings suggest that food distraction plays an important role in the psychopathology of AN. This study was registered on clinicaltrials.gov with identifier: NCT03075371.
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