Individuals with anorexia nervosa (AN) demonstrate a relentless engagement in behaviors aimed to reduce their weight, which leads to severe underweight status, and occasionally death. Neurobiological abnormalities, as a consequence of starvation are controversial: evidence, however, demonstrates abnormalities in the reward system of patients, and recovered individuals. Despite this, a unifying explanation for reward abnormalities observed in AN and their relevance to symptoms of the illness, remains incompletely understood. Theories explaining reward dysfunction have conventionally focused on anhedonia, describing that patients have an impaired ability to experience reward or pleasure. We review taste reward literature and propose that patients' reduced responses to conventional taste-reward tasks may reflect a fear of weight gain associated with the caloric nature of the tasks, rather than an impaired ability to experience reward. Consistent with this, we propose that patients are capable of 'liking' hedonic taste stimuli (e.g., identifying them), however, they do not 'want' or feel motivated for the stimuli in the same way that healthy controls report. Recent brain imaging data on more complex reward processing tasks provide insights into fronto-striatal neural circuit dysfunction related to altered reward processing in AN that challenges the relevance of anhedonia in explaining reward dysfunction in AN. In this way, altered activity of the anterior cingulate cortex and striatum could explain patients' pathological engagement in behaviors they consider rewarding (e.g., self-starvation) that are otherwise aversive or punishing, to those without the eating disorder. Such evidence for altered patterns of brain activity associated with reward processing tasks in patients and recovered individuals may provide important information about mechanisms underlying symptoms of AN, their future investigation, and the development of treatment approaches.
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