Anorexia is a severe disorder that can have a lasting effect on a person’s body. It can also have a long-term impact on the mind, according to a new study from Sahlgrenska Academy.
The report indicates that women with anorexia also display traits associated with autism, even after they have recovered from the eating disorder.
It is well-known that people with autism often have disturbed eating behaviors, but the link between the two is poorly understood. This inspired the team led by Louise Karjalainen, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Gillberg Neuropsychiatry Centre in Gothenburg, Sweden, to investigate whether individual with eating disorders also showed traits linked to autism.
“A traditional eating disorder is usually linked to fixation with food and weight, but there are also a large number of other thoughts and behavior in individuals with anorexia nervosa that have previously been considered typical for autism,” said Karjalainen.
For one facet of the study, the researchers followed 30 women who had been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and were between the ages of 15 and 25 for one year. Based on the findings, the women still showed negative thought patterns and behavior around food typically associated in autism even after the women has begun to recover from their eating disorder.
“Their general eating patterns improved during the follow-up year, but it was specifically noteworthy that they were still at the same level in their autistic behavior in terms of meal times,” explained Karjalainen.
The researchers noted a few such behaviors, like finding specific food smells unbearable, an aversion to eating with others, or a strong reaction to loud mouth noises. These behaviors continued to be observable in the participants after their health had overall recovered.
“Cognitively, a person functions better once they have regained normal weight from an eating disorder, but the social aspects of meal times were still uncomfortable. They actually also had problems with multi-tasking.
”Cutting food and chewing at the same time was a challenge, and this is something that is also prevalent in individuals with autism,” said Karjalainen.
“The fact that this is hard for patients with anorexia is something that has not previously been noticed or understood. It may be suspected that this partly is to do with the food and weight anxiety, but it was so clear that it is also linked to social factors,” she concluded.
The participants also underwent MRI changes that showed changes in the brain similar to those seen in women with autism, specifically in regions linked to social cognition.
“We need to know more in order to understand how this is all linked, but nevertheless it is a highly interesting discovery,” said Karjalainen. She believes the new findings will improve care for anorexics.
“It’s obvious that anorexia care must be food-focused; this is primarily about saving lives, but there are also other key factors in reducing the risk of relapse and to get people healthy at all levels,” she said.