OCD: Brains Habit-System Not Working Right

OCDResearchers from the Cambridge Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience Institute have been investigating whether or not compulsions in OCD are due to an overactive habit-system, Science Daily reports. The findings showed that misfiring of the brain’s control system might underpin compulsions in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Led by Dr Claire Gillan and Professor Trevor Robbins (Department of Psychology), the brains of 37 patients with OCD and 33 healthy controls were scanned while the participants repetitively performed a simple pedal-pressing behavioral response to avoid a mild electric shock to the wrist. OCD patients had trouble stopping these pedal-pressing habits, and this was linked to excessive brain activity. The studies have caused the researchers to lean towards thinking that OCD is a condition brought about when the brain’s habit system is not working right, rather than being caused by worrying about obsessions or faulty beliefs, according to the article.

Researchers believe that the findings may apply to many areas of psychiatry.

“It’s not just OCD; there are a range of human behaviors that are now considered examples of compulsivity, including drug and alcohol abuse and binge-eating,” says Dr Gillan, now at New York University. “What all these behaviors have in common is the loss of top-down control, perhaps due to miscommunication between regions that control our habit and those such as the prefrontal cortex that normally help control volitional behavior. As compulsive behaviors become more ingrained over time, our intentions play less and less of a role in what we actually do.”

It is thought that this is the work of our habit system, according to the researchers.

“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,” says Professor Robbins. “Such conditions — where maladaptive, repetitive habits dominate our behavior — are among the most difficult to treat, whether by cognitive behavior therapy or by drugs.”

The findings appear in the American Journal of Psychiatry.