A new study identifies areas of the brain involved in OCD

  • New research has identified areas of the brain involved in obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD.
  • Researchers analyzed brain scan in nearly 500 people with OCD and non-OCD.
  • They found that compared to those who do not have OCD, people with this disease have more activity in brain regions involved in error detection but less brain activity that helps stop the errors.
  • This finding could lay the foundations for better OCD treatment, the authors said.

New research, which analyzes the brain of nearly 500 people, can provide insights to help experts better treat Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), mental illness characterized by uncontrollable, repetitive thoughts and behaviors.

Researchers gathered the results of 10 previous studies comparing people with and without OCD. In these studies, participants underwent functional MRI examinations that examined their brain activity during two functions: processing errors and inhibition control, a process that allows for control of behavior and thoughts.

Their results, published in Biological Psychiatry on Thursday, showed that – compared to people without this disease – people with OCD had greater activity in the brain regions involved in error recognition, but less Brain activities involved in stopping actions, according to the University of Michigan's research report.

"These results show that the OCD brain responds too much to mistakes and too little to stop signals," said lead author of a postgraduate study by the University of Michigan, Luke Norman, PhD.

Read more:The most common myths about OCD – and why it's wrong

Research has focused on the cingulo-optic network, a collection of brain areas that functions as a "monitor" of errors and the need to stop the action. A new analysis suggests that brains of patients with OCD may get stuck in compulsive "loops," the authors of the study wrote. Even if the brain identifies the idea of ​​OCD or behavior as bad, it may not have the power to stop it.

In general, people with OCD do not control their obsession (undesirable thoughts that cause suffering) and coercion (behaviors arising in response to these obsessions), even though they acknowledge that these ideas and behaviors are excessive, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. (For example, a common obsession is fear of bacteria or contamination, and common urges include excessive hand washing or cleaning.)

Excessive cleaning is another common pressure in people with OCD.
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Causes of OCD are not yet known, but new research suggests that specific deviations in error processing that are deep inside the brain may play a role in the condition.

Experts thought these abnormalities were included in OCD, Norman said in his statement, but it was not "convincingly demonstrated" because the individual studies had a small number of participants.

"By combining data from ten studies with nearly 500 patients and healthy volunteers, we have seen how brain circuits that have long been considered critical to OCD are actually involved in this disorder," he added.

Read more: 13 things you should not say to someone who is struggling with mental health

New research does not show that observed brain differences in patients with OCD are the definitive cause of this disease. Data used by researchers does not show whether these differences can be the cause or outcome of OCD, the university statement explained.

"More work is needed to understand how these performance abnormalities and brain functions are associated with OCD symptoms," the authors wrote.

But knowing more about the brains of patients with OCD could help orient future researchers towards better treatment.

Therapy is one of the current options for OCD treatment.
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Meanwhile, OCD treatment usually involves psychotherapy, medication or a combination of both, but some patients continue to fight symptoms, according to NIMH.

Read more: 5 myths about OCD that you have to stop believing

"In cognitive behavioral therapy for OCD, we are working to help patients identify, confront and resist pressure … but they only work in about half of the patients," says Professor Michael Kate Fitzgerald, co-author of new paper, in a statement. "By finding such as these, we hope we will be able to cure CBT or cure new healing."

"It's not a deep problem of behavior," she added. "OCD is a health problem and no one is guilty, we can study brain imaging, as well as cardiac specialists, the study of their patients' ECGs – and we can use this information to improve the care and lives of people with OCD."

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