Do People with Anorexia and Autism Process Information Similarly?

Some research has indicated similarities between autism spectrum (ASD) conditions and anorexia (AN). Although the two have very different physical and emotional symptoms, recent studies have suggested that they share cognitive similarities. Anorexia is characterized by distorted body image perception, restricted eating patterns, excessive dieting, and, in some cases, binging and purging. So how do characteristics like these have any neurological commonalities with ASD?

In an effort to examine this question further, Leon Fonville of the Institute of Psychiatry and the Department of Psychological Medicine at King’s College in London recently led a study in which he looked at the neurological activity in 35 individuals with AN and 37 without to serve as control (HC) participants. The participants completed a task that required them to identify a geometrical shape embedded within one of two figures. They underwent brain scans as they competed the experiment.

Fonville found that there were unique differences in the way in which the AN participants and the HC participants processed the information. Specifically, the AN participants performed worse than the HC on the task, and they relied more on the fusiform gyrus region of their brains to process the information. The HC participants had more activity in the precuneus region, which indicates they used more visuospatial techniques to find the shape while the AN participants used more of a recognition type approach.

Interestingly, the fusiform gyrus has also been found to be especially active during embedded figure tasks conducted on people with ASD. Fonville said, “These findings would suggest that similar to ASD, AN uses an alternative cognitive strategy to HC to perform the task.” He cautions that these findings are limited in several ways and should be interpreted in light of those limitations. For example, the AN participants were not compared directly to ASD participants in this study.

Also, in research on ASD, participants have only had to identify whether a shape existed with a figure or not; they have not had to compare two figures to determine which one had a shape. This is a significant difference in methodology and should be considered when these results are reviewed. However, until future work addresses these differences, these show that there are cognitive traits in AN that are similar to ASD and these traits can influence treatment response and outcome.

Fonville, L., Lao-Kaim, N.P., Giampietro, V., Van den Eynde, F., Davies, H., et al. (2013). Evaluation of Enhanced Attention to Local Detail in Anorexia Nervosa Using the Embedded Figures Test; an fMRI Study. PLoS ONE 8(5): e63964. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063964

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  • Deimos


    May 25th, 2013 at 12:53 AM

    Using a different part of your brain to perform a task does sound a bit weird.But do all of us without these conditions use the exact same region to perform a particular task?Also if an alternative region can be used to perform a task,is that not a good thing?

  • Carol P

    Carol P

    May 25th, 2013 at 4:53 AM

    Whoa that seems like it would be a stretch to even Think that these two could process things similarly.
    They seem so different to me- hwo would you even think that these two could be compared to each other? That’s kind of like comparing watermelons to spaceships to me.

  • jasmine


    May 26th, 2013 at 12:03 PM

    I think that the better approach to this is not necessarily looking at how two random illnesses are the same. How does this help? You have to focus on the disease that has the most meaning for you, and work on some ways to help prevent that in other patients. It really doesn’t make that much difference in how much they are related unless you find that one form of treatment that is working for one could also work for the other. But if different parts of the brain are triggering different reactions and responses, to me it looks like there is nothing too similar and that researchers should continue looking to cures and treatments for both, but probably separately.

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