Academic journal article Journal of Evidence-Based Psychotherapies

Reduced Specificity of Autobiographical Memory in Anorexia Nervosa

Academic journal article Journal of Evidence-Based Psychotherapies

Reduced Specificity of Autobiographical Memory in Anorexia Nervosa

Article excerpt


During the past years many researchers have focused their attention on autobiographical memory and its deficits in clinical samples suffering of emotional disturbance. The aim of this research was to study autobiographical memory functioning in anorexia nervosa patients, taking into account the duration of illness, the subjective evaluation and the date of the recalled memory, the pleasantness of the recalled memory and the level of depression. Patients with restrictive anorexia nervosa were compared with a group of healthy teenagers using the Autobiographical Memory Test, the Child Depression Inventory and the Eating Disorder Inventory. Anorexic girls recalled more general (extended and categoric) memories than the controls for each type of cue word (positive, negative and neutral), suggesting a general difficulty in the access to emotional memories.

Keywords: anorexia nervosa, autobiographical memory, specific memory, depression


In the past few decades a new line of research focusing on autobiographical memories has drawn increasing attention of scientists all over the world (Healey & Williams, 1999). Autobiographical memory refers to memories with personal content retrieved easily by the individual, that are not part of a generic script or semantic memory, but which form individual autobiography (Swales & Williams, 2001). The dominant paradigm for assessing autobiographical memory - the autobiographical memory test (AMT) - was developed by Williams and Broadbent (1986). They studied patients a few days after they had been hospitalized for a serious suicide attempt. These individuals were asked to retrieve specific autobiographical memories to positive or negative cue words (e.g., happy, angry). A specific memory is defined as 'something that happened at a particular place and time and took no longer than a day to occur'(for example, "Last Sunday when I went out for a coffee with Mary"). Responses were compared to normal controls. Despite the fact that they were asked to retrieve specific memories, the overdose patients tended, as a first response to the cues, to retrieve more inappropriately general memories than controls (For example: "When I am with Mary". These general memories can be further qualified as categoric general memories, referring to events that occur often, and extended general memories, referring to events that last more than one day, or no memories (semantic associations) and no response or same event.

Several studies found that depressed patients (Brewin, Reynolds & Tata, 1999; Hermans, Van den Broeck, Belis et al., 2004), patients with bipolar depression (Mansell & Lam, 2004) and patients suffering from PTSD (McNally, Lasko, Macklin et al., 1995) show lack of specificity compared to controls. A number of studies have demonstrated that general memory is associated with poor problem solving (Arie, Apter Orbach et al., 2008; Sutherland & Bryant, 2008; Williams, Barnhofer & Beck, 2005).

Eating disordered patients often experience depression (Santos, Richards & Bleckley, 2007; Speranza, Corcos & Loas, 2005) and they have problem solving deficits (Cooper, 1995). Memory functioning in eating disorders was analyzed in many studies (Carter, Bulik, McIntosh et al., 2000; Hunt & Cooper, 2001; Davidson & Wright, 2002), but studies related to autobiographical memory functioning in eating disorders are scarce.

Dalgleish and colleagues (Dalgleish, Golden, Barett et al., 2007) studied autobiographical memory functioning in 32 patients suffering from eating disorders and found that these patients are less specific on the autobiographical memory test then healthy controls. Laberg and Andersson (2004) studied autobiographical memory in a sample of 18 women recently treated for bulimia nervosa. Results showed that bulimic patients had difficulties retrieving specific memories and retrieved an excess of categoric memories. …

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