New research stresses the importance of treating patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) early, before the need to perform routines and rituals overwhelms them and gets in the way of everyday life. Researchers from the University of Cambridge believe that OCD patients’ compulsions might come from their brains’ control systems misfiring.
“While some habits can make our life easier, like automating the act of preparing your morning coffee, others go too far and can take control of our lives in a much more insidious way, shaping our preferences, beliefs, and in the case of OCD, even our fears,” Professor Trevor Robbins, one of the lead authors on the study, explained.
Along with Dr. Claire Gillan and the rest of their research team, they examined the possibility that OCD stems from an “overactive habit-system.”
The research involved 37 patients with OCD and 33 healthy people. The test subjects all performed a pedal-pressing activity that involved mild electric shocks to the wrist. OCD patients were not as capable of stopping their pedal-pressing habits as the people without OCD. The patients brains were scanned during the experiment, and the researchers linked the pedal-pressing habits to an overactivity in their brains’ caudate nucleus regions. This region, according to Medical News Today, must fire correctly in order for people to maintain control of their habits.
This presents a new way of looking at OCD, according to a press release from the research team.
“This line of work has shifted opinion away from thinking of OCD as a disorder caused by worrying about obsessions or faulty beliefs, towards viewing it as a condition brought about when the brain’s habit system runs amok.”
Dr. Gillan explained that OCD behaviors likely stem from miscommunication between the habit-forming regions of the brain (such as the caudate nucleus) and the voluntary behavior regions of the brain (like the prefrontal cortex).
“As compulsive behaviors become more ingrained over time, our intentions play less and less of a role in what we actually do,” Gillian explained, offering another reason why patients who exhibit OCD behaviors need to be treated early.
Professor Robbins said that OCD and all compulsive disorders are usually among the hardest disorders to treat, possibly because patients seek treatment long after the behaviors have become habitual enough to affect their lifestyles. According to Psychology Today, OCD is often triggered by traumatic events or encounters, but people with OCD “should be encouraged to refocus their energies on combating the disorder through exposure and ritual prevention (EX/RP), a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy designed specifically for OCD,” rather than trying to find the catalyst for the OCD behavior.
“This study emphasizes the importance of treating OCD early and effectively before the dysfunctional behavior becomes entrenched and difficult to treat,” Professor Barbara Sahakian, another author of the new OCD study, concluded.
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