Neural responses to kindness and malevolence differ in illness and recovery in women with anorexia nervosa

  • Carrie J. McAdams, Terry Lohrenz, P. Read Montague
  • Human Brain Mapping, September 2015, Wiley
  • DOI: 10.1002/hbm.23005

Kindness Perception: A Problem in Anorexia Nervosa

What is it about?

Functional magnetic resonance imaging examines brain responses in women with anorexia nervosa while they play an interactive money-exchange game. Brain responses sorted based on whether one's partner is nicer than expected and meaner than expected. Women currently with anorexia nervosa are less aware of both kindness and meanness than healthy women. Women in long-term recovery from anorexia nervosa are aware of meanness but still not kindness. We also identify an office-measure that is predictive of how one's brain responds to kindness, for all groups.

Why is it important?

Understanding biological changes that assist with recovery from anorexia nervosa is important because this illness is very challenging to treat, with only about half of the patients sustaining recovery. This study shows a biological basis for altered social perceptions in anorexia nervosa. Most importantly, we identify an office-based cognitive measure related to how much people's brains react to kindness. This last piece suggests that individual patients in a clinician's office can be given a biological assessment for kindness perception, potentially leading to targeted treatments. Furthermore, identification that noticing kindness may be a biological challenge for anorexia nervosa is important, as most psychiatric visits focus on 'bad days/experiences' rather than reflecting on 'good days/experiences'. Helping patients notice kindness may be an avenue of treatment that can be more fully explored.


Dr Carrie J McAdams
University of Texas at Southwestern Medical Center

As a neuroscientist and a psychiatrist specialized in eating disorders, these patients can be challenging to treat. It is easy to be frustrated if a patient is fixed on negative events. With this data, we have a biological reason why this is a problem. That makes the work of treatment of this illness more concrete, and easier to understand the types of messages that are likely to be helpful in therapy.

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The following have contributed to this page: Dr Carrie J McAdams