Beyond Description and Deficits: How Computational Psychiatry Can Enhance an Understanding of Decision-Making in Anorexia Nervosa

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6 Scopus citations


PURPOSE OF REVIEW: Despite decades of research, knowledge of the mechanisms maintaining anorexia nervosa (AN) remains incomplete and clearly effective treatments elusive. Novel theoretical frameworks are needed to advance mechanistic and treatment research for this disorder. Here, we argue the utility of engaging a novel lens that differs from existing perspectives in psychiatry. Specifically, we argue the necessity of expanding beyond two historically common perspectives: (1) the descriptive perspective: the tendency to define mechanisms on the basis of surface characteristics and (2) the deficit perspective: the tendency to search for mechanisms associated with under-functioning of decision-making abilities and related circuity, rather than problems of over-functioning, in psychiatric disorders.

RECENT FINDINGS: Computational psychiatry can provide a novel framework for understanding AN because this approach emphasizes the role of computational misalignments (rather than absolute deficits or excesses) between decision-making strategies and environmental demands as the key factors promoting psychiatric illnesses. Informed by this approach, we argue that AN can be understood as a disorder of excess goal pursuit, maintained by over-engagement, rather than disengagement, of executive functioning strategies and circuits. Emerging evidence suggests that this same computational imbalance may constitute an under-investigated phenotype presenting transdiagnostically across psychiatric disorders. A variety of computational models can be used to further elucidate excess goal pursuit in AN. Most traditional psychiatric treatments do not target excess goal pursuit or associated neurocognitive mechanisms. Thus, targeting at the level of computational dysfunction may provide a new avenue for enhancing treatment for AN and related disorders.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)77-87
Number of pages11
JournalCurrent psychiatry reports
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported in part by the National Institutes of Health (K23MH112867, K23MH123910; T32MH096679; P50MH119569; UH3NS100548, R01MH119384, R21MH120785), the Hilda and Preston Davis Foundation, the MnDRIVE Brain Conditions Initiative, and the Medical Discovery Team—Addictions at the University of Minnesota.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature.


  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Computational psychiatry
  • Decision-making
  • Eating disorder
  • Executive functioning
  • Goal pursuit


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