Processing of emotionally ambiguous stimuli in eating disorders: an fMRI pilot study

Holštajn Zemánková P, Gajdoš M, Světlák M, Bareš M, Širůček J, Kašpárek T.

Eat Weight Disord. 2021 Dec;26(8):2757-2761. doi:10.1007/s40519-021-01130-7. Epub 2021 Feb 9. PMID: 33559833.


7 Dec 2021

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Purpose: People with eating disorders (EDs) have difficulties understanding their own emotions and recognizing the emotions of others, especially in ambiguous settings. We examined the neuronal mechanisms underlying the emotion processing of ambiguous interpersonal stimuli in EDs and healthy controls (HCs).

Methods: The fMRI data were acquired by a blocked experimental design with 28 women (14 EDs) during the visual presentation of a modified Thematic Apperception Test.

Results: EDs showed very strong associations between experienced and inferred emotions evoked by the stimuli; no such relationship was found in HCs. HCs displayed elevated left anterior insula activity during the mentalizing condition; EDs showed increased activity in the right supramarginal gyrus and medial prefrontal cortex.

Conclusion: The two groups seem to apply different strategies for judging emotionally ambiguous stimuli, albeit resulting in equivalent judgments. We assume that activity in the supramarginal gyrus and insula in EDs is linked with suppressing their own perspective while considering emotional states, probably due to alexithymia and the lack of awareness of their own mental states. We hypothesize that the strong correlation between experienced and inferred emotions in EDs could reflect their tendency to use others as a reference point for perceiving themselves and gaining information about their affective state.

Level of evidence: No level of evidence, this is a basic science study.

Keywords: Ambiguity; Eating disorders; Mentalization; Right supramarginal gyrus; Thematic apperception test; fMRI.

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