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Dopamine has long been implicated as a critical neural substrate mediating anorexia nervosa (AN). Despite nearly 50 years of research, the putative direction of change in dopamine function remains unclear and no consensus on the mechanistic role of dopamine in AN has been achieved. We hypothesize two stages i n AN– corresponding to initial development and entrenchment– characterized by opposite changes in dopamine. First, caloric restriction, particularly when combined with exercise, triggers an escalating spiral of increasing dopamine that facilitates the behavioral plasticity necessary to establish and reinforce weight-loss behaviors. Second, chronic self-starvation reverses this escalation to reduce or impair dopamine which, in turn, confers behavioral inflexibility and entrenchment of now established AN behaviors. This pattern of enhanced, followed by impaired dopamine might be a common path to many behavioral disorders characterized by reinforcement learning and subsequent behavioral inflexibility. If correct, our hypothesis has significant clinical and research implications for AN and other disorders, such as addiction and obesity.


This article was originally published in Frontiers in Psychiatry and can be accessed

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