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Children at risk of eating disorders have higher IQ and better working memory

Children at risk for eating disorders have, on average, a higher IQ and better working memory but have poorer attentional control than those not at risk, according to researchers at the UCL Institute of Child Health (ICH). The study, published in the journal Psychological Medicine, looked at what characteristics might make some children more likely to develop an eating disorder later in life.

Funded by WellChild, the national charity for sick children, this was the first large-scale study of children aged 8-10 deemed to be at high risk of developing an eating disorder, due to having a family member with anorexia, bulimia or both. Importantly, the children did not show any signs or symptoms of such a disorder at the time they were studied.

Using data from Children of the 90s, the study looked at intelligence and attention in 6,200 participants when they were eight and at their working memory and inhibition when they were ten (the children are now aged 19 to 21). Intelligence and cognitive function were assessed using a version of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, which tests general cognitive ability. Approximately 3.7 per cent of the children were considered to be at high risk.

Compared to children at low risk, the children in the high-risk group showed some significant cognitive differences. Those who had a close relative with anorexia were found to have better working memory – the ability to temporarily hold and process useful information while suppressing irrelevant information – and a higher IQ, on average. However, this group also showed reduced attentional control. In other words, they were less able to inhibit a well-learned response in a test where they were prompted to say the opposite of what they would normally say. Children with a family member with bulimia nervosa were found to do less well in tasks involving assembling an object, displaying poorer visuo-spatial functioning than the control group.

Further research is required to confirm and better understand the implications of these findings. The team are currently seeking funding to understand if these differences lead to later eating disorders.

Radha Kothari, author of the study, says:

'Cognitive differences have been observed in patients with eating disorders, but by looking at children at an early age when they had not yet developed an eating disorder, we could rule out the confounding effects of poor diet on the brain. This meant we could focus on characteristics that might increase the risk of developing an eating disorder, rather than characteristics which might be the result of an eating disorder.

'For example, being less able to inhibit the brain’s automatic response in the tests given here might later translate into an inability to inhibit thoughts about weight and shape. Or struggling with visuo-spatial perception might later lead to the perceived distortion of body shape that is commonly experienced by people with eating disorders.'

Dr Nadia Micali, who led the research, added:
'Although more research is needed to clarify these results, these findings should nevertheless help in the identification of vulnerable children, and in furthering our understanding of which neuropsychological characteristics may make a child susceptible to an eating disorder. This, in turn, should guide the future development of targeted preventative strategies.'

Please contact Dara O'Hare for further information.

Further information:

  1. The paper: ‘The neuropsychological profile of children at high risk of developing an eating disorder’, by Radha Kothari, Francesca Solmi, Janet Treasure and Nadia Micali, is published on 15 October 2012 in the journal Psychological Medicine. doi:10.1017/S0033291712002188 and can be downloaded here.
  2. The UCL Institute of Child Health, in partnership with Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), is the largest centre in Europe devoted to clinical and basic research and postgraduate teaching in children’s health. Academics at the UCL Institute of Child Health work together with clinicians at GOSH to form an integrated and multi-disciplinary approach to the understanding, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of childhood disease. Many individuals hold joint appointments at both institutions. This allows the hospital and the institute to work together to translate research undertaken in laboratories into clinical trials and treatments in the hospital, bringing real benefits to the children at GOSH and to the wider paediatric community.
  3. WellChild is the national charity for sick children and is committed to ensuring that every child in the UK, no matter what their situation, location or diagnosis, has the very best possible quality of care. The charity, which has Prince Harry as its Patron, funds a unique team of WellChild Children’s Nurses who play an essential role for families across the UK. Those WellChild Nurses help to ensure that children can be cared for at home rather than in hospital wherever possible – cutting through the confusion experienced by parents with a child in long-term hospital care and making sure that families and other carers are able to meet the complicated needs of these young people. In addition, WellChild funds a number of other projects designed to provide support to families caring for children and young people with long-term or complex care needs. This includes the charity’s unique Helping Hands scheme which enlists the support of volunteers from companies and organisations of all kinds from up and down the country to tackle individual home development projects – helping seriously ill children, young people and their families in truly practical ways.