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Understand Neurobiology Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a common mental disorder that is characterized by unwanted, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors (compulsions) that individuals feel compelled to perform. Individuals that experience OCD may find comfort in understanding the neurobiology of this condition
Though the exact cause of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is not fully understood, research suggests that abnormalities in certain brain circuits and the serotonin may play a role in the development of OCD. This blog references research and studies focused on the brain and OCD.

What The Research Tells us About Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Studies of neurophysiological disorders, like OCD and other neuro-based disorders have focused on specific brain regions, primarily on the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and basal ganglia, in its pathophysiology. Furthermore, recent neurobiological studies of OCD have found a close correlation between clinical symptoms, cognitive function, and brain function. Researches have observed patterns of high activities in the OFC in individuals with OCD.

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Attention & OCD

The concept of attention consists of three elements: information processing, attention span, and selective attention. Many researchers have tested for deficits in information processing and attention span using cognitive tests. Although studies have demonstrated decreased information processing speed, there is little evidence for a marked impairment of these functions in OCD. On the other hand, in terms of selective attention, some researchers  hypothesize that patients with OCD have difficulty switching attention.  Additionally, results from an fMRI study was conducted focusing on task-switching and and found that patients with OCD had significantly higher error rates in trials and reduced activation in prefrontal regions of the brain. Thus, neuro-imaging studies may provide evidence of attention-processing disturbances in OCD.

Executive Function & OCD

Executive function is the higher cognitive function that controls and manages other cognitive processes. This includes planning, cognitive flexibility, rule-taking, changing sets, and problem-solving abilities. Because the concept of executive function may be plausible in explaining the persistent and inflexible thinking and behavior of OCD, many researchers have looked at executive function in OCD. Similarly, The Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST) is suitable for testing overall variability. From this research, it was observed that individuals with OCD scored lower that those without OCD.

     However, there is research that suggests  that this is a result of a lack of cognitive flexibility.  An fMRI study showed significantly stronger left prefrontal cortex activation in patients with OCD compared with normal controls when running the word generation test. Therefore, it seems that executive impairment may be a likely explanation for behaviors such as inadequate decision making or lack of flexibility in changing behavior commonly seen in OCD. 

Working Memory & OCD

Working memory is one of the higher cognitive functions involved in mediating integration, processing, removal, and retrieval of information. It differs from the general memory function in that it includes active monitoring and information manipulation.  In this regard, some researchers have found impaired working memory in OCD using the Tower of London test. An fMRI study showed that patients with OCD performed poorly at the highest levels of difficulty and engaged in the same pool of brain regions as matched healthy control regions in the midbrain, prefrontal cortex regions and peaks, particularly related to working memory

While there is certainly a specific biological basis for OCD, such as the OCD loop, the complex involvement of different neural networks may underlie its clinical diversity and lead to deviations in responses to treatment. At present, we can derive a certain amount of information from neurobiological studies, but there are many questions that need to be clarified. 

Getting the Right Help for OCD

There are current treatment options available for OCD and we are confident that the services at Mind by Design can help you on your journey to OCD recovery. With various options for interventions and modalities,  your treatment plan will be tailored to your unique needs. Read about our OCD treatment here:

OCD Treatment At Mind by Design Counseling, NJ

Rebecca is a certified clinical anxiety treatment specialist and provides treatment for OCD, Phobias and Panic Disorder using Exposure Therapy, Virtual Reality Therapy and Mindful-Based CBT. Learn more by clicking on her photo!


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