Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Strongly Linked to Brain Inflammation

A breakthrough discovery related to the physical underpinning of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) shows that brain inflammation is significantly elevated in OCD sufferers.

The new study, performed by researchers at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, found that brain inflammation was 30 percent higher among those with OCD compared to individuals without the condition.

The orbitofrontal cortex of the brain, associated with OCD, is highlighted in green. Credit: PaulWicks [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons

“Our research showed a strong relationship between brain inflammation and OCD, particularly in the parts of the brain known to function differently in OCD,” said senior author Dr. Jeffrey Meyer, head of the Neuroimaging Program in Mood Anxiety with the Center for Addiction and Mental Health’s Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute.

“This finding represents one of the biggest breakthroughs in understanding the biology of OCD, and may lead to the development of new treatments,” added Meyer.

That’s significant because currently available medications are ineffective for about one in three individuals with OCD, note the researchers. About 2.2 million Americans suffer from OCD, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Like other behavioral disorders, the condition can result in mental anguish for those affected by it.

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“In general, those who have OCD suffer from unwanted and intrusive thoughts that they can’t seem to get out of their heads (obsessions), often compelling them to repeatedly perform ritualistic behaviors and routines (compulsions) to try and ease their anxiety,” describes the ADAA.

The new study builds on previous work that found a link between brain inflammation and the incidence of depression, also conducted at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health.

New Therapies on the Horizon

For the current study, the Canadian researchers assessed 40 individuals — 20 with a history of OCD and 20 without the condition. They conducted a positron emission tomography (PET) scan that allowed them to assess inflammation levels in the brain. Looking at six brain areas that are linked to OCD behavior, the researchers found inflammation rates that were 32 percent higher in those areas among people with the condition.

The study also found that people with OCD who attempted to ignore feelings of compulsion and not act on them showed higher levels of inflammation than those who followed through on their obsessions. With the greater sense of the physical symptoms of OCD, the study may give scientists more ammunition to develop more effective treatment options.

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“Medications developed to target brain inflammation in other disorders could be useful in treating OCD,” said Meyer. “Work needs to be done to uncover the specific factors that contribute to brain inflammation, but finding a way to reduce inflammation’s harmful effects and increase its helpful effects could enable us to develop a new treatment much more quickly.”

Already, the researchers have opened up an investigation into which individuals specifically show the highest signs of inflammation, which could help steer treatment methods.

Most people with OCD are unable to bring their obsessions to a halt and “untreated OCD can be detrimental to all aspects of life,” notes the ADAA.

The study appeared in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

Richard Scott


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