The cognitive-interpersonal maintenance model of anorexia nervosa revisited: a summary of the evidence for cognitive, socio-emotional and interpersonal predisposing and perpetuating factors.

Janet Treasure* and Ulrike Schmidt

Abstract :

Aim: To describe the evidence base relating to the Cognitive-Interpersonal Maintenance Model for anorexia nervosa (AN).

Background: A Cognitive-Interpersonal Maintenance Model maintenance model for anorexia nervosa was described in 2006. This model proposed that cognitive, socio-emotional and interpersonal elements acted together to both cause and maintain eating disorders.

Method: A review of the empirical literature relating to the key constructs of the model (cognitive, socio-emotional, interpersonal) risk and maintaining factors for anorexia nervosa was conducted.

Results: Set shifting and weak central coherence (associated with obsessive compulsive traits) have been widely studied. There is some evidence to suggest that a strong eye for detail and weak set shifting are inherited vulnerabilities to AN. Set shifting and global integration are impaired in the ill state and contribute to weak central coherence. In addition, there are wide-ranging impairments in socio-emotional processing including: an automatic bias in attention towards critical and domineering faces and away from compassionate faces; impaired signalling of, interpretation and regulation of emotions. Difficulties in social cognition may in part be a consequence of starvation but inherited vulnerabilities may also contribute to these traits. The shared familial traits may accentuate family members’ tendency to react to the frustrating and frightening symptoms of AN with high expressed emotion (criticism, hostility, overprotection), and inadvertently perpetuate the problem.

Conclusion: The cognitive interpersonal model is supported by accumulating evidence. The model is complex in that cognitive and socio-emotional factors both predispose to the illness and are exaggerated in the ill state. Furthermore, some of the traits are inherited vulnerabilities and are present in family members. The clinical formulations from the model are described as are new possibilities for targeted treatment.

Keywords: Anorexia nervosa, Model, Complex intervention, Eating disorder