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Compulsivity in Anorexia Nervosa: A Transdiagnostic Concept


Compulsivity in Anorexia Nervosa: A Transdiagnostic Concept

Lauren R Godier et al. Front Psychol.


The compulsive nature of weight loss behaviors central to anorexia nervosa (AN), such as relentless self-starvation and over-exercise, has led to the suggestion of parallels between AN and other compulsive disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and addictions. There is a huge unmet need for effective treatments in AN, which has high rates of morbidity and the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, yet a grave paucity of effective treatments. Viewing compulsivity as a transdiagnostic concept, seen in various manifestations across disorders, may help delineate the mechanisms responsible for the persistence of AN, and aid treatment development. We explore models of compulsivity that suggest dysfunction in cortico-striatal circuitry underpins compulsive behavior, and consider evidence of aberrancies in this circuitry across disorders. Excessive habit formation is considered as a mechanism by which initially rewarding weight loss behavior in AN may become compulsive over time, and the complex balance between positive and negative reinforcement in this process is considered. The physiological effects of starvation in promoting compulsivity, positive reinforcement, and habit formation are also discussed. Further research in AN may benefit from a focus on processes potentially underlying the development of compulsivity, such as aberrant reward processing and habit formation. We discuss the implications of a transdiagnostic perspective on compulsivity, and how it may contribute to the development of novel treatments for AN.

Keywords: addiction; anorexia nervosa; compulsivity; habit formation; neurobiology; obsessive–compulsive disorder; reward.


The DSM-V diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Representation of the cortico-striatal circuitry suggested to be involved in the development compulsive behavior (Robbins, 2007; Brewer and Potenza, 2008; Fineberg et al., 2010). In the circuit, activity in the striatal component drives compulsive behavior, whilst activity in the prefrontal component inhibits compulsive behavior. Both failures in “top down” control of the prefrontal components, and over activity of “bottom up” striatal activity can result in increases in compulsive behavior. Abbreviation: OFC, orbitofrontal cortex.
The vicious circle of self-starvation in anorexia nervosa: representation of the development of compulsive weight loss habits in AN. This can be conceptualized as a vicious circle, augmented by starvation. (1) Goal-directed weight loss behaviors, such as food restriction and exercise, lead to weight loss. (2) Weight loss is experienced as rewarding, which may be positively reinforced by an increase of DA in the VS. (3) The pursuit of the rewarding aspects of weight loss leads to a repetition of weight loss behaviors: (a) disorder related cues may gain incentive salience through conditioned reinforcement, and may themselves trigger weight loss behavior (Walsh, 2013). (4) Repetition of rewarding weight loss behavior may result in synaptic changes in DA pathways (Fladung et al., 2013) and result in DA hypofunctioning in a similar way to substance dependence (Everitt and Robbins, 2005). (5) The avoidance of negative states and the anxiety associated with food may become more important in reinforcing weight loss behaviors in the later stages of AN (Selby et al., 2014). (6) Starvation and malnourishment further promote weight loss behavior in the following ways: (a) the up regulation of reward associated with starvation may lead to disorder-related cues gaining incentive salience (Fladung et al., 2010) through a molecular cascade in which starvation induced reductions in glucose and insulin lead to an increase in phasic DA transmission in the VS (Zink and Weinberger, 2010). Furthermore, AN is associated with increased sensitivity to both reward and punishment (Jappe et al., 2011) which may enhance both positive and negative reinforcement of weight loss. (b) Stress is associated with a reliance on habits in learning (Schwabe et al., 2007), and the stress associated with starvation may promote the compulsive weight loss behaviors seen in AN. (7) Once weight loss behavior is repeated enough, a rewarding outcome may no longer be needed for behavior to continue, and weight loss behaviors may become compulsive and habitual (Walsh, 2013). Abbreviations: DA, dopamine; VS, ventral striatum.

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