BrainWaves: The Neuroscience Graduate Program Newsletter

MiNDS Manuscripts: Sarah Brassard

Author: Sarah Brassard

In this month’s MiNDS Manuscript series, Sarah Brassard discusses her most recent publication in Progress in Neuropsychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry.

Click here to read her article!

A Review of Effort-Based Decision-Making in Eating and Weight Disorders
What was the primary focus of your paper?
This review synthesizes literature on effort-based decision-making across the spectrum of eating and weight disorders. It summarises studies examining whether: 1) individuals with eating disorders and overweight/obesity are willing to expend more effort for rewards compared to healthy controls, 2) if particular components of effort-based decision-making (i.e. risk, discounting) relate to specific binge eating conditions, and 3) how individual differences in effort and reward-processing measures relate to eating pathology and treatment measures. 

Can you briefly explain the findings of your paper for someone outside the field?
The results from our review suggest that individuals with binge eating behaviours are 1) more likely to expend greater effort for food rewards, but not monetary rewards, 2) demonstrate greater decision-making impairments under risk and uncertainty, 3) prefer sooner rather than delayed rewards for both food and money, and 4) demonstrate increased implicit ‘wanting’ for high fat sweet foods. 

What does your paper hope to accomplish / how does it add value to the field?
Neuroeconomics has become a hot topic in recent years and consequently, the field of eating disorders has seen an increase in the number of studies assess decision-making and related constructs. Our paper was designed with the intention of reviewing and summarizing what has been done and found during this boom, and subsequently identifying research gaps that can guide the direction of future research. While the discussion of our paper is focused mainly on binge eating more than other eating disorders, our review nonetheless included studies assess neuroeconomic principles across eating disorders with the hopes of creating a comprehensive overview of the topic. 

What were some of the issues (e.g., writer's block, lack of motivation, pressing deadlines, etc.) you faced when writing this paper? How did you overcome them? 

All of the above! Writer’s block, lack of motivation, working on other projects, you name it! These are some very common issues that I definitely encountered when working on this paper. However, I was enrolled in a writing course (Dr. Kathy Murphy's writing course) while I was working on this manuscript and a lot of things I was learning helped me overcome these obstacles. For example, setting clear writing time specifically for this project (as I would do if I were scheduling a meeting). I would book myself 1 hour writing blocks for this project and spend that time either making edits based on my supervisor’s feedback, starting new paragraphs, working on tables/figures or reading articles that will be included in my paper. Having this organization really helped me stay on top of all my projects; I was able to organize my time to work a little bit on all my ongoing project each day. Breaking down my tasks into smaller, more manageable assignments also facilitated some problems I encountered. At times, I would get overwhelmed with the sheer number of papers I had to review, breaking up my review process into smaller chunks (e.g., review all anorexia nervosa papers today and review bulimia nervosa papers tomorrow) allowed me to be more productive, stay focused, and produce higher quality material. 

Do you have any advice for anyone who is writing their first research paper? 
From a review standpoint, my advice would be to take a step back (think of and reflect on the larger implications of your work) and enjoy the process. Writing review papers can be overwhelming, especially when there are lots of studies to review, and each study takes a slightly different approach (which makes comparing results between studies difficult) AND it’s your first manuscript for your thesis or dissertation. However, whenever I felt myself getting discouraged, I found it helpful to take a step back and think about not only how this paper will impact the larger scientific sphere, but also how it contributes to my overall academic development. It was helpful for me to remind myself how this review is a critical step in my development as a graduate student, and a rare moment where I can really immerse myself into the literature and learn all there is to know about my construct of interest. In times when I felt disorganized and confused about interpreting my results, I found it helpful to focus on one main idea at a time and to adjust my writing schedule accordingly. This way, I was able to 1) break my review down into to smaller, more manageable sections (examining one subconstructs at a time), 2) develop a richer understanding of my construct as a whole and 3) translate my knowledge with more ease and confidence. 

What was the most fun part of this journey?
Being able to take the first steps in answering my research questions. It was exciting to be able to sit down and take a deep dive into the research examining effort-based decision-making in eating and weight disorders. This process allowed me to develop a thorough understanding of effort-based decision-making and broaden my understanding by breaking down my review into effort-based decision-making subconstructs (namely effort expenditure, risk taking and uncertainty, delay discounting and reward processing/valuation). It was also rewarding to see how the results of this review set the foundation for my futures studies that will contribute to my research program. 

Thank you so much Sarah!
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