Eating disorders (EDs) have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, yet there are currently no empirically-supported treatments for adults with anorexia nervosa (AN). Exposure therapy, including imaginal exposure therapy (IE) - an adapted form used to treat intangible fears (i.e. past trauma) - is considered the “gold standard” treatment for anxiety disorders. EDs share many similarities with anxiety disorders, with individuals experiencing high levels of anxiety in situations surrounding food and weight. However, very little research exists on the application of IE to EDs. Moreover, the neurobiological mechanisms for how IE works to decrease anxiety and promote healthier behaviors is currently unknown.
Therefore, to investigate how neurobiology changes following IE, we will collect functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data before and after a 10-week IE treatment adapted to focus on ED fears. We will additionally collect data from healthy matched control participants. Through this approach, we will be able to identify brain regions and networks that show initial differences between groups, and then investigate how neural circuitry changes in individuals with EDs following treatment. This research has the potential to create a novel, empirically-supported, highly accessible treatment for EDs, while elucidating the neurobiological mechanisms for how the treatment works.