Eating Disorders (EDs) are characterized by profound distortions of the way the body is perceived. Such distortions include for example alterations of body image and overestimation of body size which have been long recognized as core symptoms of this family of disorders. Alongside, also misperception of internal body signals, such as satiety and feelings of fullness, have been shown for some time to be associated with EDs. However, recent evidences suggest that disturbances in the way ED patients perceive their bodies are more widespread and severe than previously thought, comprising also primary exteroceptive and interoceptive processes as well as the integration of multisensory information. Overall these results suggest abnormal somatosensory processing to be a core characteristic of EDs that may be key to the onset and maintenance of these disorders. The full scope of abnormal somatosensory processing in EDs needs now to be clarified. At the same time, the neural bases of this misperception remain unclear. My PhD project aims to address this research gap and systematically analyze misperception in the context of EDs. A greater understanding of these processes will offer an as yet untested opportunity to develop new evidence-based treatment and preventive programmes.
During the first part of my PhD I will be conducting two behavioral experiments in a population of healthy subjects with different grades of ED symptoms. Particularly, I will be analyzing the elaboration and integration of visual, tactile and proprioceptive information. In both experiments attention to the bodily self will be manipulated through visual stimuli while performing tactile perception and inner body sensation tasks.
During the second part of my PhD I will investigate the neural correlates of body misperception in healthy subjects with different ED symptom levels by using a non-invasive brain stimulation technique. Lastly, I will test somatosensory processes in a sample of ED patients before and after a treatment program which involves visual inspection of the body with the aim to inform future treatments.
After finishing my PhD I would like to find a post-doctoral position in my research field. Specifically, I would like to further investigate the relation between perceptive processes and psychological variables in the context of a developmental framework. My long term plan is to find a position as lecturer and pursue an academic career.