Eating disorders

Mental health

At a glance

The role of reward and punishment sensitivity in the development of eating disorders

Lead researcher

Dr Amy Harrison


University College London



Amount awarded


Last updated



A risk factor for developing an eating disorder may be reinforcement sensitivity, an individual's response to signals of reward and punishment. For example, a cautious person who is risk averse and fears failure may make different decisions under conditions of risk, compared to a more impulsive, reward driven person. This is a potentially modifiable target within prevention programmes.

The aim of Dr Amy Harrison’s longitudinal, prospective, cohort study is to explore whether reward and punishment sensitivity in childhood and early adolescence play a role in the development of eating disorders in later adolescence. This will be addressed by accessing already available quantitative data from the Millennium Cohort Study, a large UK general population study of about 19,000 people born in 2000-2001 followed up to the present day.

This work will enhance understanding of the extent to which a psychological factor currently identified in the acute and remitted phases of illness may contribute to illness development. This new knowledge will then be shared to improve illness understanding and detection.

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Mental health - Eating disorders and self-harm

  • Why is there a need to fund new research?

    Despite an increase in young people affected by eating disorders and self-harm, there is still limited research focusing on what causes these devastating mental health problems. As many as one in six teenagers have self-harmed at some point, and self-harm is the strongest known risk factor for suicide. Eating disorders are also common, affecting around 15 per cent of young women and over three per cent of young men.

    Although up to half of people with an eating disorder have self-harmed, we also know little about why these mental health problems often occur together.

    Building on a previous £1.3 million investment in eating disorders and self-harm research by the Foundation and the MRC (part of UK Research and Innovation), these new research projects will improve our understanding of what causes these conditions and ultimately, it is hoped these insights will lead to earlier intervention and better treatments.

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