Brain Activity Patterns and Eating Behavior in Teens

How we think— especially how we think about ourselves and others—can have a big impact on our mood and actions. When it comes to eating disorders, one hypothesis is that negative thinking about oneself (aka low self-esteem) may play a part in the onset and maintenance of restrictive eating or binge eating characteristic of eating disorders.

At the Columbia Center for Eating Disorders, we are trying to better understand this relationship between an individual’s thoughts about themselves and eating behavior. Specifically, we are investigating what happens in the brain during negative self-evaluation, and how this relates to eating disorder behavior.

Many of our studies use fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to measure brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow. When a brain region is in use, blood flow increases to the surrounding area, and this is captured in fMRI.

We can also measure brain activity using neurophysiology, the study of nerve cell communication. The neurons in our brain communicate with one another using electrical signals. These signals create unique patterns that can be recorded and interpreted using an electroencephalogram, or EEG. EEG detects electrical activity in the brain using sensors on a cap that is placed on top of the head.

What does the research say about self-evaluation?

Recent research in teens with depression has shown that the tendency to view oneself negatively is characterized by distinct behavioral and brain activity patterns that can be elicited and measured using a computer task with EEG. The brain patterns provide information about what is happening in the brain during distinct mental processes like attending to something and encoding (i.e., remembering) it.

Electroencephalogram (EEG)

Not too long ago, we used this computer task without EEG in a small group of adolescent and adults with eating disorders. Our pilot study suggested that patients with eating disorders show similar patterns to adolescents with depression – that is to say, the patient group experienced more negative self-evaluation when compared to healthy controls.

In our latest study, we are going to use EEG to see if brain patterns in teens with eating disorders are also similar to brain patterns in teens with depression, and to examine the potential links between these self-evaluation biases and eating disorder behavior.

From the laboratory into the real world…

How exactly can we measure eating behavior? Restrictive eating and binge eating are core symptoms of eating disorders, yet most existing studies of self-evaluation in eating disorders have not examined links to these behaviors. Fortunately, our team has a lot of experience studying eating behavior over the years, from studying eating in the lab to asking participants to complete detailed dietary assessments. In this study, we plan to leverage a method of data collection ecological momentary assessment (EMA) to get as close to the moment, the “real world,” as possible. EMA allows researchers to study real-time behavior in the natural environment with the aid of an electronic device, like a smartphone.

Research in action: Come join us!

We are conducting a study to explore these questions, and understand how adolescents with and without anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder think and behave, including how they think about themselves and other people.

What does participation involve?

In this study, participants will be asked to:

  • complete computer tasks with EEG that records brain activity,
  • eat dinner in our eating laboratory, and
  • use a smartphone app to collect data about eating in day-to-day life

Why participate?

  • For adolescents with eating disorders interested in and eligible for research participation, we are able to provide a variety of treatment options.
  • Research participants – those with eating disorders and those without – also make an incredible contribution to science. Our hope is that if we can understand how self-related thinking, social functioning, and brain activity are related to eating disorders, this information could lead us closer to understanding treatment targets for adolescents with eating disorders. We cannot do our work without you.
  • Monetary compensation is available for all participants’ time and scientific contribution.

If you are interested in participating, contact us at 646-774-8066 or

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  1. Kim, that was an interesting research project! Obsessions, perfectionism, negative thinking, and low self-esteem are linked to eating disorders in teenagers and adults. When you’re depressed, it’s common for your eating habits to worsen. Some people binge and gain weight, relying on food to make them feel better, while others lose their appetite.

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