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Q&A: Exploring the interplay between anorexia and autism

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Professor Kate Tchanturia from King’s College London is studying the complex interplay between anorexia nervosa and autism spectrum disorder. It is thought that symptoms of autism may affect recovery from anorexia.

As many as 35 per cent of women with anorexia nervosa in our inpatient programme could also be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Professor Kate Tchanturia

How do anorexia and autism overlap?

Our research and clinical work increasingly shows that there is some overlap in symptoms between the two disorders, including tendencies towards an inflexible thinking style and becoming stuck in details while processing information. This might also include difficulties in social and emotional areas, such as recognising your own emotions and expressing them, and interacting with others. Recent data from our team indicates that as many as 35 per cent of women with anorexia nervosa in our inpatient programme could also be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (Westwood, H et al 2017).

Why is it important to study these commonalities?

We think the presence of both disorders could affect recovery from eating disorders, and could predict a more chronic course of illness, so we want to identify these patients with both disorders (what we call ‘comorbidity’) at a much earlier stage. Some patients with anorexia nervosa don’t respond to available treatments and it’s possible that symptoms of autism are a contributing factor.

What are you doing in The Triple A study (Adolescents with Anorexia and Autism)?

We’ve recruited and tested over 170 young women with current diagnoses of anorexia nervosa, a group who have recovered from the disorder, and a ‘healthy’ control group. By collecting data from brain scans, questionnaires and clinical interviews, we can study the interaction between clinical features, as well as thinking and social functioning styles. Participants with anorexia nervosa, and those who have recovered from anorexia, will then complete the same measures six months later (following treatment) to identify any differences that might help predict treatment response or relapse.

How will this study help clinicians?

Insights from our study will help to clarify whether current diagnostic tools are valid and reliable for identifying women who have autism, on top of the eating disorder we know they have already.

What could these findings mean for people with anorexia nervosa?

Our study will highlight which mechanisms we should be targeting during these early stages of illness. This is important because we know from research evidence that the earlier treatment is available, the better.

Find out more about Professor Tchanturia's research, which is funded by the Medical Research Foundation and the MRC.