An exploratory examination of executive functioning as an outcome, moderator, and predictor in outpatient treatment for adults with anorexia nervosa

Ella Keegan, Susan Byrne, Phillipa Hay, Stephen Touyz, Janet Treasure, Ulrike Schmidt, Virginia V. W. McIntosh, Tracey D. Wade

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Plain English Summary People with anorexia nervosa often have difficulty thinking flexibly and in terms of the big picture. We investigated whether these thinking styles (1) change over treatment, (2) influence response to treatment, or (3) predict whether people gain weight or overcome the eating disorder. We found that people were able to think more flexibly after treatment. We also found that people who had more difficulty seeing the big picture prior to treatment had a more rapid decrease in eating disorder symptoms and clinical impairment in treatment. Thinking styles did not predict whether people gained weight early in treatment or overcame the eating disorder. Our findings suggest that the detail-focused thinking style commonly observed among people with anorexia nervosa can be both a vulnerability and a strength.Objective People with anorexia nervosa often exhibit inefficiencies in executive functioning (central coherence and set shifting) that may negatively impact on treatment outcomes. It is unclear from previous research whether these inefficiencies can change over treatment. We aimed to (1) investigate whether executive functioning can improve over treatment, (2) determine whether baseline executive functioning moderates treatment outcome, and (3) examine whether baseline executive functioning predicts early change (i.e., increase in body mass index over the first 13 weeks of treatment) or remission. Method We conducted linear mixed model and logistic regression analyses on data from the Strong Without Anorexia Nervosa trial (Byrne et al. in Psychol Med 47:2823-2833, 2017). This study was a randomised controlled trial of three outpatient treatments for people with anorexia nervosa: Enhanced Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Maudsley Model Anorexia Nervosa Treatment for Adults, and Specialist Supportive Clinical Management. Results While set shifting clearly improved from baseline to end of treatment, the results for central coherence were less clear cut. People with low baseline central coherence had more rapid reductions in eating disorder psychopathology and clinical impairment than those with high baseline central coherence. Baseline executive functioning did not predict early change or remission. Discussion The detail-focused thinking style commonly observed among people with anorexia nervosa may aid treatment outcomes. Future research that is more adequately powered should replicate this study and examine whether the same pattern of results is observed among people with non-underweight eating disorders.
Original languageEnglish
Article number83
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Eating Disorders
Volume10
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2022

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