Objective: Corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH)-mediated hypercortisolemia has been demonstrated in anorexia nervosa (AN), a psychiatric disorder characterized by food restriction despite low body weight. While CRH is anorexigenic, downstream cortisol stimulates hunger. Using a food-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) paradigm, we have demonstrated hypoactivation of brain regions involved in food motivation in women with AN, even after weight recovery. The relationship between hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis dysregulation and appetite and the association with food-motivation neurocircuitry hypoactivation are unknown in AN. We investigated the relationship between HPA activity, appetite, and food-motivation neurocircuitry hypoactivation in AN.
Design: Cross-sectional study of 36 women (13 AN, ten weight-recovered AN (ANWR), and 13 healthy controls (HC)).
Methods: Peripheral cortisol and ACTH levels were measured in a fasting state and 30, 60, and 120 min after a standardized mixed meal. The visual analog scale was used to assess homeostatic and hedonic appetite. fMRI was performed during visual processing of food and non-food stimuli to measure the brain activation pre- and post-meal.
Results: In each group, serum cortisol levels decreased following the meal. Mean fasting, 120 min post-meal, and nadir cortisol levels were high in AN vs HC. Mean postprandial ACTH levels were high in ANWR compared with HC and AN subjects. Cortisol levels were associated with lower fasting homeostatic and hedonic appetite, independent of BMI and depressive symptoms. Cortisol levels were also associated with between-group variance in activation in the food-motivation brain regions (e.g. hypothalamus, amygdala, hippocampus, orbitofrontal cortex, and insula).
Conclusions: HPA activation may contribute to the maintenance of AN by the suppression of appetitive drive.