Open Access Research article

Emotional facial expression in women recovered from anorexia nervosa

Helen Davies*, Ulrike Schmidt and Kate Tchanturia

Author Affiliations

Division of Psychological Medicine, King’s College London, Institute of Psychiatry, De Crespigny Park, PO59, London SE5 8AF, UK

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BMC Psychiatry 2013, 13:291  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-13-291

Published: 7 November 2013

Abstract

Background

Recent models of anorexia nervosa (AN) have emphasised the importance of social and emotional difficulties as maintenance factors of the disorder, however, empirical data are limited. The aim of this study was to examine whether altered emotional facial expression, previously observed in people currently ill with anorexia nervosa, is limited to the ill state or present in people recovered from the illness.

Methods

The sample consisted of 123 participants [49 AN, 21 recovered AN (RecAN) and 53 healthy controls (HC)]. Participants watched three films clips (amusing, neutral, sad) whilst their facial expressions were recorded and completed the positive and negative affect scale (PANAS) to record subjective experience. Facial expressions were subsequently coded for frequency of positive and negative expression and frequency of looking away.

Results

In response to the amusing clip, AN participants showed significantly less positive expression than both HC and RecAN groups and both AN and RecAN showed more negative expression than HC with no difference between groups in looking away.

In response to the sad clip there was no difference between groups in positive expression, but current AN participants showed significantly less negative expression than HC and looked away from the stimuli more than RecAN or HC.

In terms of their subjective emotional experience, patients with current AN reported less positive emotion in response to both the amusing and the sad film clip. There was no difference between groups in subjective negative experience.

Conclusions

Alterations in facial expression are present in people currently ill with AN contributing to the social difficulties found in AN and potentially exacerbating resistance to treatment. Some alterations in facial expression are found in women with a past history of AN but not to the same extent as those shown in the currently ill group. Future studies need to use a wider range of stimuli involving different emotions to corroborate findings.

Keywords:
Anorexia; Recovered; Emotion; Facial expression; Eating disorders