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Anorexia nervosa (AN) predominantly affects adolescent females and has the highest rate of mortality among psychiatric disorders. It is categorized as an Axis 1 Clinical Disorder in the DSM-IV and a Mental/Behavioural Disorder in the ICD-9. No research, however, has been conducted on how the diagnostic terms and linguistic categorization of AN may psychologically and neurobiologically contribute to the etiology or duration of AN. Peer-reviewed scientific articles, case studies, and books were used to investigate this relationship. Medical terminology loses its original context when used in non-medical society, gaining the power a label that may catalyze the development of AN in individuals who are diagnosed early, or extend the duration of AN in established patients. Three related factors make patients with AN uniquely susceptible to the impact of language: body image disturbance, information processing bias, and hyper reactive amygdala function. Due to body image disturbance (BID), which is one of AN’s four diagnostic criteria, patients with AN are fundamentally unable to create a stable self-image. This results in a body image that fluctuates with external stimuli, particularly language. Testing using the modified Stroop test and the dot-probe methods has found that patients with AN demonstrate a hypersensitivity to AN-related words, indicating an information processing bias that increases their susceptibility to language-induced body image fluctuations. Patients with AN also demonstrate hyper reactive amygdala function. This area of the brain coordinates and initiates responses to perceived threats. In individuals with AN, the hyper reactive amygdala catalyzes AN tendencies in response to the perceived threat of negative evaluation by others, a fear that is perpetuated by labels like “disordered” and “diseased”. These AN tendencies are catalyzed because patients view thinness as a positive factor that will induce positive feedback; ironically, their thinness is what brings the label of "disordered" in the first place, resulting in a self-perpetuating cycle. Though diagnostic labels are necessary, more research on the linguistic etiological component of AN is necessary so that future treatment methods for AN may address and work to prevent the patients' negative response to the language of diagnoses.

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Subject Major(s)

Linguistics, Neurobiology, Psychology

Current Academic Year


Faculty Advisor/Mentor

Mary Boyes


Virginia Commonwealth University. Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program

Is Part Of

VCU Undergraduate Research Posters


© The Author(s)

How Diagnostic Terms may Catalyze or Extend the Duration of Anorexia Nervosa