Impaired belief updating and devaluation in adult women with bulimia nervosa

Laura A. Berner, Vincenzo G. Fiore, Joanna Y. Chen, Angeline Krueger, Walter H. Kaye, Thalia Viranda, Sanne de Wit

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Recent models of bulimia nervosa (BN) propose that binge-purge episodes ultimately become automatic in response to cues and insensitive to negative outcomes. Here, we examined whether women with BN show alterations in instrumental learning and devaluation sensitivity using traditional and computational modeling analyses of behavioral data. Adult women with BN (n = 30) and group-matched healthy controls (n = 31) completed a task in which they first learned stimulus-response-outcome associations. Then, participants were required to repeatedly adjust their responses in a “baseline test”, when different sets of stimuli were explicitly devalued, and in a “slips-of-action test”, when outcomes instead of stimuli were devalued. The BN group showed intact behavioral sensitivity to outcome devaluation during the slips-of-action test, but showed difficulty overriding previously learned stimulus-response associations on the baseline test. Results from a Bayesian learner model indicated that this impaired performance could be accounted for by a slower pace of belief updating when a new set of previously learned responses had to be inhibited (p = 0.036). Worse performance and a slower belief update in the baseline test were each associated with more frequent binge eating (p = 0.012) and purging (p = 0.002). Our findings suggest that BN diagnosis and severity are associated with deficits in flexibly updating beliefs to withhold previously learned responses to cues. Additional research is needed to determine whether this impaired ability to adjust behavior is responsible for maintaining automatic and persistent binge eating and purging in response to internal and environmental cues.

Original languageEnglish
Article number2
JournalTranslational Psychiatry
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2023


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