Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Research in computational psychiatry has sought to understand the basis of compulsive behavior by relating it to basic psychological and neural mechanisms: specifically, goal-directed versus habitual control. These psychological categories have been further identified with formal computational algorithms, model-based and model-free learning, which helps to provide quantitative tools to distinguish them. Computational psychiatry may be particularly useful for examining phenomena in individuals with anorexia nervosa (AN), whose self-starvation appears both excessively goal directed and habitual. However, these laboratory-based studies have not aimed to examine complex behavior, as seen outside the laboratory, in contexts that extend beyond monetary rewards. We therefore assessed (1) whether behavior in AN was characterized by enhanced or diminished model-based behavior, (2) the domain specificity of any abnormalities by comparing learning in a food-specific (i.e., illness-relevant) context as well as in a monetary context, and (3) whether impairments were secondary to starvation by comparing learning before and after initial treatment. Across all conditions, individuals with AN, relative to healthy controls, showed an impairment in model-based, but not model-free, learning, suggesting a general and persistent contribution of habitual over goal-directed control, across domains and time points. Thus, eating behavior in individuals with AN that appears very goal-directed may be under more habitual than goal-directed control, and this is not remediated by achieving weight restoration.