Brain Imaging Study Shows Overactive Habit System in OCD Patients

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A newly done study has found that misfiring in the brain’s habit control system could be behind the compulsive behaviors associated with obsessive compulsive disorder.

The study was done by Dr. Clair Gillan and Professor Trevor Robbins of the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge. In the latest study done by the Cambridge Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, investigators looked at the possibility that OCD compulsions are the results of an overactive habit system in the brain.

Findings of the Study

The latest study findings have steered the opinion away from the thinking that OCD is a disorder caused by worrying about obsessions or faulty beliefs, towards seeing it as a condition that is the results of a brain system that isn’t working right.

In a study funded by the Wellcome Trust, the research team scanned the brains of 37 patients with OCD, and 33 healthy individual while they engaged in repetitively performing a single pedal-pressing behavioral response to forego experiencing a mild electrical shock to their wrist.

It was found the patients with OCD were less able to stop the pedal pushing behavior. The link was due to excessive brain activity in the caudate nucleus, a region that needs to fire properly to ensure people can control their habits, the team explained.

It has been established through imaging it has been long established that when the caudate is overactive, OCD symptoms are provoked. The habits researchers trained the patients to do in the lab also resulted in the caudate area of the brain to become over active and fueled OCD compulsions, and it could be caused by the habit system, researchers noted.

Scientists added these findings are not only specific to OCD, but in fact, habits may be linked to many aspects of psychiatry.

Dr. Gillan stated, “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.”

She further noted, “What all these behaviors have in common is the loss of top-down control, perhaps due to miscommunication between regions that control our habits and those such as prefrontal cortex that normally help control vocational behavior. As compulsive behaviors become more ingrained over time, our intentions play less and less a role in what we actually do.”

The team said they believe this work is due to the habit system.

Robbins stated, “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


This study highlights the importance of treating the symptoms of OCD early, before it leads to dysfunctional behavior and becomes entrenched and nearly impossible to treat.

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