Anorexia nervosa as a motivated behavior: Relevance of anxiety, stress, fear and learning

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43 Scopus citations


The high comorbidity between anorexia nervosa (AN) and anxiety disorders is well recognized. AN is a motivated behavioral disorder in which habit formation is likely to contribute to the persistence of abnormal eating and exercise behaviors. Secondary alterations in brain circuitry underlying the reward value of food and exercise, along with disturbances in neuroendocrine hunger and satiety signaling arising from starvation and excessive exercise, are likely contributors to the maintenance of anorectic behaviors in genetically vulnerable individuals. The potential role of fear conditioning in facilitating onset of AN, or of impaired fear extinction in contributing to the high relapse rates observed following weight restoration, is of interest. Evidence from animal models of anxiety and human laboratory studies indicate that low estrogen impairs fear extinction. Low estradiol levels in AN may therefore play a role in perpetuating fear of food and fat in recently weight restored patients. Translational models including the activity based anorexia (ABA) rodent model of AN, and neuroimaging studies of fear extinction and conditioning, could help clarify the underlying molecular mechanisms and neurocircuitry involved in food avoidance behaviors in AN. Moreover, the adaptation of novel treatment interventions with efficacy in anxiety disorders may contribute to the development of new treatments for this impairing disorder.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)466-472
Number of pages7
JournalPhysiology and Behavior
StatePublished - Dec 1 2015


  • Activity based anorexia
  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Anxiety
  • Estrogen
  • Fear conditioning
  • Habit learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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