Social cognition in children at familial high-risk of developing an eating disorder

Radha Kothari, Manuela Barona, Janet Treasure, Nadia Micali

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20 Scopus citations


Objective: Diagnosis of an eating disorder (ED) has been associated with differences in social cognition. To date research investigating social cognition and ED has mainly employed patient and recovered samples. It is therefore unclear whether differences in social cognition are present prior to onset of ED, potentially contributing to development, or whether differences observed are a consequence of the disorder. We aimed to further explore whether individuals at high-risk for ED present social cognition characteristics previously found in ED groups. Methods: Our sample was drawn from a population-based cohort, the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). Data on maternal ED behaviors over the lifetime were collected through in-depth clinical interviews (n = 1128) conducted using the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM disorders (SCID), and were used to categorize mothers according to ED behaviors over the lifetime: Restricting and Excessive Exercising (n = 58), Purging (n = 70), Binge-eating (n = 72), Binging and Purging (n = 66), no ED (n = 862). High-risk status of children was determined using these maternal lifetime behavioral phenotypes. Children at high-risk (maternal ED exposure) were compared to children at low-risk (born to mothers with no ED) on three measures of social cognition: the Social Communication Disorders Checklist (SCDC) (n = 922), the faces subtest of the Diagnostic Analysis of Non-Verbal Accuracy (DANVA) (n = 722), and the Emotional Triangles Task (n = 750). Results: Children at high-risk for ED showed poorer performance on measures of social cognition compared to children at low-risk. Maternal lifetime binge-eating, and maternal lifetime binging and purging were associated with poorer social communication in children (OR: 2.4, 95% CI: 1.0, 5.7, p = 0.05; and OR: 2.7, 95% CI: 1.1, 6.5, p = 0.03 respectively). Maternal binging and purging was also found to be associated with differential facial emotion processing and poorer recognition of fear from social motion cues (B: −0.7, 95% CI: −1.1, −0.2, p = 0.004). Discussion: Children at high-risk for ED showed slight differences in some areas of social cognition when compared to children at low-risk. Characteristic patterns in social cognition are present in children at high-risk for ED, particularly among children whose mothers have binge-eating and purging behaviors over the lifetime. Our findings support the hypothesis that these differences may be part of an intermediate phenotype for ED: perhaps contributing to development, or perhaps indexing a shared liability with psychiatric disorders characterized by abnormal social cognition.

Original languageEnglish
Article number208
JournalFrontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue numberAUGUST
StatePublished - 7 Aug 2015


  • Eating disorder
  • Emotion recognition
  • High-risk
  • Phenotype
  • SCDC
  • Social cognition


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