Neural correlates of viewing photographs of one’s own body and another woman’s body in anorexia and bulimia nervosa: an fMRI study

Neural correlates of viewing photographs of one's own body and another woman's body in anorexia and bulimia nervosa: an fMRI study


J Psychiatry Neurosci 2010;35(3):163-76

Silja Vocks, PhD; Martin Busch, PhD; Dietrich Grönemeyer, MD; Dietmar Schulte, PhD;Stephan Herpertz, MD; Boris Suchan, PhD

Vocks, Schulte — Department of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, Ruhr-University Bochum; Busch, Grönemeyer — Department of Radiology, University of Witten-Herdecke; Herpertz — Department of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy, Ruhr-University Bochum; Suchan — Department of Cognitive Neuroscience, Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany


Background: In spite of many similarities in the psychopathology of anorexia nervosa (AN) and bulimia nervosa (BN), the 2 groups seem to differ in terms of body image disturbances. Therefore, the aim of the present study was to compare neuronal correlates of viewing photographs of one’s own body and another woman’s body in patients with these forms of eating disorders as well as controls.

Methods: We performed functional magnetic resonance imaging while women with AN (n = 13), BN (n = 15) and healthy controls (n = 27) viewed 16 standardized pictures of their own body and another woman’s body, taken while the participants were wearing a bikini.

Results: When viewing their own body, participants with AN and BN showed reduced activity in the inferior parietal lobule compared with healthy women. In response to looking at another woman’s body, participants with AN had higher amygdala activity than did those in the BN and control groups.

Limitations: The generalizability of the results is limited by the small sample size.

Conclusion: Our data suggest decreased attentional processes in AN and BN toward one’s own body, possibly reflecting body-related avoidance behaviour. Enhanced limbic activity elicited by looking at another woman’s body in participants with AN might be a neural correlate of stronger emotional activation and enhanced vigilance, possibly resulting from social comparison processes. Our study reveals hints about body image–associated alterations in brain activity, which seem to be more pronounced among women with AN than among those with BN.

Submitted Apr. 16, 2009; Revised Sept. 18, 2009; Accepted Jan. 12, 2010.

Competing interests: None declared.

Contributors: Drs. Vocks, Schulte, Herpertz and Suchan designed the study. Drs. Vocks, Busch and Grönemeyer acquired the data. Drs.Vocks and Suchan analyzed the data and wrote the article. Drs.Busch, Grönemeyer, Schulte, Herpertz and Suchan reviewed the article. All authors approved the final version submitted for publication.

DOI: 10.1503/jpn.090048

Correspondence to: Dr. S. Vocks, Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, Department of Psychology, Ruhr-University Bochum, Universitätsstrasse 150, D-44780 Bochum, Germany; fax 49-234-3214304;