Adaptive learning from outcome contingencies in eating-disorder risk groups.
Pike AC., Sharpley AL., Park RJ., Cowen PJ., Browning M., Pulcu E.
Eating disorders are characterised by altered eating patterns alongside overvaluation of body weight or shape, and have relatively low rates of successful treatment and recovery. Notably, cognitive inflexibility has been implicated in both the development and maintenance of eating disorders, and understanding the reasons for this inflexibility might indicate avenues for treatment development. We therefore investigate one potential cause of this inflexibility: an inability to adjust learning when outcome contingencies change. We recruited (n = 82) three groups of participants: those who had recovered from anorexia nervosa (RA), those who had high levels of eating disorder symptoms but no formal diagnosis (EA), and control participants (HC). They performed a reinforcement learning task (alongside eye-tracking) in which the volatility of wins and losses was independently manipulated. We predicted that both the RA and EA groups would adjust their learning rates less than the control participants. Unexpectedly, the RA group showed elevated adjustment of learning rates for both win and loss outcomes compared to control participants. The RA group also showed increased pupil dilation to stable wins and reduced pupil dilation to stable losses. Their learning rate adjustment was associated with the difference between their pupil dilation to volatile vs. stable wins. In conclusion, we find evidence that learning rate adjustment is unexpectedly higher in those who have recovered from anorexia nervosa, indicating that the relationship between eating disorders and cognitive inflexibility may be complex. Given our findings, investigation of noradrenergic agents may be valuable in the field of eating disorders.