A ‘brain training’ app developed by Cambridge University scientists could help people who suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder manage the debilitating condition.
Symptoms of the anxiety disorder include things such as excessive hand-washing and fears about contamination.
But just one week of training can lead to significant improvements, according to the Cambridge research team.
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A ‘brain training’ app developed by Cambridge University scientists could help people who suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder manage the debilitating condition. Symptoms of the anxiety disorder may include excessive handwashing and contamination fears (stock)
What is obsessive compulsive disorder?
Obsessive compulsive disorder, usually known as OCD, is a common mental health condition which makes people obsess over thoughts and develop behaviour they struggle to control.
It can affect anyone at any age but normally develops during young adulthood.
It can cause people to have repetitive unwanted or unpleasant thoughts.
People may also develop compulsive behaviour – a physical action or something mental – which they do over and over to try to relieve the obsessive thoughts.
The condition can be controlled and treatment usually involves psychological therapy or medication.
It is not known why OCD occurs but risk factors include a family history of the condition, certain differences in brain chemicals, or big life events like childbirth or bereavement.
People who are naturally tidy, methodical or anxious are also more likely to develop it.
One of the most common types of OCD, affecting up to 46 per cent of sufferers, is characterised by severe contamination fears and excessive washing behaviour.
Excessive washing can be harmful, the researchers said, as sometimes OCD patients use spirits, surface cleansers or even bleach to clean their hands.
The they said this behaviour can have a serious impact on people’s lives, their mental health, their relationships and their ability to hold down jobs.
The repetitive and compulsive behaviour is also associated with ‘cognitive rigidity’ – in other words, an inability to adapt to new situations or new rules.
Breaking out of compulsive habits, such as handwashing, requires cognitive flexibility so that the OCD patient can switch to new activities instead.
OCD is treated using a combination of medication such as Prozac and a form of cognitive behavioural therapy – or ‘talking therapy’ – termed ‘exposure and response prevention’.
That therapy often involves instructing OCD patients to touch contaminated surfaces, such as a toilet, but to refrain from then washing their hands.
But they are not particularly effective as up to 40 per cent of patients fail to show a good response to either treatment.
The researchers said that may be in part because often people with OCD have suffered for years prior to receiving a diagnosis and treatment.
Another difficulty is that patients may fail to attend exposure and response prevention therapy as they find it too stressful to undertake.
The Cambridge researchers developed a new treatment to help people with contamination fears and excessive washing.
The intervention, which can be delivered through a smartphone app, involves patients watching videos of themselves washing their hands or touching fake contaminated surfaces.
A total of 93 healthy people who had indicated strong contamination fears participated in the study.
The researchers used healthy volunteers rather than OCD patients in their study to ensure that the intervention did not potentially worsen symptoms.
The participants were divided into three groups; the first group watched videos on their smartphones of themselves washing their hands; the second group watched similar videos but of themselves touching fake contaminated surfaces; and the third watched themselves making neutral hand movements on their smartphones.
OCD is treated using a combination of medication such as Prozac and a form of cognitive behavioural therapy – or ‘talking therapy’ – termed ‘exposure and response prevention’ (stock)
After just one week of viewing their brief 30 second videos four times a day, participants from both of the first two groups improved in terms of reductions in OCD symptoms and showed greater cognitive flexibility compared with the neutral control group.
On average, participants in the first two groups saw their Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale (YBOCS) scores improve by around 21 per cent.
YBOCS scores are the most widely used clinical assessments for assessing the severity of OCD.
The researchers aid that, importantly, completion rates for the study were excellent – all participants completed the one week intervention, with participants viewing their video an average of 25 out of 28 times.
Study co-author Baland Jalal, a Cambridge neuroscientists, said: ‘Participants told us that the smartphone washing app allowed them to easily engage in their daily activities.
‘For example, one participant said ‘if I am commuting on the bus and touch something contaminated and can’t wash my hands for the next two hours, the app would be a sufficient substitute’.’
Co-author Professor Barbara Sahakian, of Cambridge’s Department of Psychiatry, said: ‘This technology will allow people to gain help at any time within the environment where they live or work, rather than having to wait for appointments.
‘The use of smartphone videos allows the treatment to be personalised to the individual.’
She added: ‘These results while very exciting and encouraging, require further research, examining the use of these smartphone interventions in people with a diagnosis of OCD.’
The smartphone app is not currently available for public use because the Cambridge team said further research is required before they can show conclusively that it is effective at helping patients with OCD.
The findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.