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Difficulties in retrieving specific details of autobiographical memories and imagining positive future events in individuals with acute but not remitted anorexia nervosa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Original languageEnglish
Article number172
JournalJournal of Eating Disorders
Early online date18 Nov 2022
Accepted/In press31 Oct 2022
E-pub ahead of print18 Nov 2022


King's Authors


The factors that contribute to the maintenance of anorexia nervosa (AN) are not fully understood, although it is generally accepted that depression is a core feature and contributes to poor prognosis. Individuals with depression tend to have difficulties in producing specific details of autobiographical memories and future episodes. Our aim was to investigate autobiographical memory and episodic future thinking (EFT) in individuals with AN (n = 46), people recovered from AN (recAN; n = 40), and non-affected controls (n = 35).

Using a remotely administered computerised version of the autobiographical memory test and episodic future thinking task, we measured six aspects of memory retrieval and EFT generation: specificity, detailedness, difficulty in remembering/imagining, positivity, vividness and realism. Memory and EFT cue valence was manipulated; cues were either positive, neutral, or disorder-related/negative. As the production of EFTs is theoretically linked to the ability to retrieve autobiographical memories, the relationship between autobiographical memory specificity and EFT specificity was explored. To investigate whether autobiographical memory and EFT performance were independent of performance on other forms of cognition, working memory, verbal fluency and cognitive flexibility were measured.

People with AN had difficulties retrieving specific details of autobiographical memories and rated autobiographical memories as less positive overall, and less vivid when primed by positive cues. People with a lifetime diagnosis (currently ill or recovered) reported greater difficulty in retrieving memories. The AN group generated less positive EFTs, particularly to positive and neutral cues. Comorbid depressive symptoms had some contribution to the observed findings. Lastly, in all groups autobiographical memory specificity predicted EFT specificity.

Problems with retrieving specific details of autobiographical memories and simulating positive EFTs may be a state feature of AN. Treatments targeted at alleviating depressive symptoms, as well those targeted towards facilitating memory retrieval or reconsolidation, and the construction of positive EFTs, may contribute to hope for recovery and strengthen the sense of self beyond the disorder.

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