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Study Suggests Anorexia Might be Tied to Certain Autistic Traits

Update Date: Aug 07, 2013 12:15 PM EDT

Anorexia is an eating disorder where the individual restricts calories in order to lose weight even if he/she is already thin. This irrational fear of weight gain can lead to severe health complications as the body deteriorates due to the lack of nutrition. There are several risk factors that could lead to anorexia, such as the pressure to be thin or family history, which is why it is important to understand these factors in order to help or prevent this illness from killing the individual. On top of these risk factors, doctors, family and friends must also keep a look out for physical symptoms of anorexia, characterized by an extreme loss of weight and the avoidance of food. Now, according to research, other symptoms of anorexia might include symptoms of an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

For this study, the research team headed by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen from the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University recruited 66 girls between the ages of 12 and 18. All of the girls were diagnosed with anorexia and were not autistic. They were tested for certain traits that would be associated with autism, which were measured by using the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ). The test also measured the girls' systemizing ability using the Systemizing Quotient (SQ) and empathy through the Empathy Quotient (EQ). Systemizing involves one's interest in repeating patterns. The results were compared to 1,600 teenagers who did not suffer from anorexia or autism and were around the same age.

The researchers discovered that for the AQ, over 50 percent of the girls with anorexia had scores comparable to the scores from people with autism. Only 15 percent of the typical girls had these scores as well. In terms of SQ, researchers noted that girls with anorexia scored higher than girls without the eating disorder. For EQ, girls with anorexia scored lower in comparison to the sample set of typical girls.

"Traditionally, anorexia has been viewed purely as an eating disorder. This is quite reasonable, since the girls' dangerously low weight, and their risk of malnutrition or even death has to be the highest priority. But this new research is suggesting that underlying the surface behavior, the mind of a person with anorexia may share a lot with the mind of a person with autism. In both conditions, there is a strong interest in systems. In girls with anorexia, they have latched onto a system that concerns body weight, shape and food intake," Baron-Cohen explained reported by Medical Xpress.

This new finding could provide new ways of treating girls with anorexia. However, more research needs to be done to determine if the association between anorexia and autism is strong enough to alter treatment options. The main focus should still remain on helping girls with anorexia fight their eating disorder. The study was published in Molecular Autism.

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