An Exploration of the Social Neuroscience of Empathy and Autism Spectrum Disorder Behaviors in Anorexia Nervosa
James, Amanda Sommers
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b For decades research has searched for an explanation of Anorexia Nervosa (AN) as a variant of other psychiatric disorders. Examples include primary pituitary disorder, schizophrenia, mood disorder, and anxiety disorders. One notable comparison is with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), in which behavioral and clinical observations indicate a diagnostic overlap. Cross examination of symptomology has indicated striking similarities, particularly in regards to eating disturbances and processes in executive functioning. As such, researchers have called for the comparison of neurocognitive profiles of AN and ASDs, in order to increase the understanding of the degree of overlap between these two conditions, of which would prove useful in the progression of treatment and intervention. Additionally, a theoretical framework has examined the similarities between AN and ASDs, and indicated that investigations conducted in this manner may lead to the understanding of endophenotypes relevant to AN. Purpose: The purpose of the present study is to investigate interpersonal factors; specifically, the ability to express empathy and the existence of ASD behaviors in a sample of AN patients compared to Health Controls (HC). While certain studies represent extensive data collected over many decades, these longitudinal studies were conducted within a narrowly defined sample of Swedish children, limiting its generalizability. A theoretical framework has been laid out towards defining social cognitive endophenotypes in AN and while this work draws on a tremendous amount of evidence, it has not been empirically validated. Building off of previous studies implicating comorbid diagnosis of ASDs in a subset of the AN population, the present study continues to explore the possible link between ASDs and AN. Methods: Data was collected on measures of empathy, emotional intelligence, autism behavior, and eating disorder behaviors across samples of AN ( n = 16) and HC ( n = 22). Independent samples t-tests were run to compare differences between groups on the above measures. Both confirmatory and exploratory analyses were run. Results: Significant differences were noted between groups on variable of autism spectrum disorder behaviors, alexithymia, and emotional intelligence. Analyses did not indicate significant differences between groups on measures of expressed empathy or emotional contagion. Discussion: The present study serves as a replication and expansion on previous research examining the relationship between AN and ASDs diagnoses. The present results continue to highlight the presence of ASDs behaviors within an AN sample in comparison to HC. However, the present results are limited by a small sample size and inherent difficulties in measurement when utilizing self-report measures.