Burning Away OCD with Laser Surgery

By Lars Klintwall Malmqvist (Larsklintwallmalmqvist) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Normally, the term lobotomy brings up frightening images and thoughts of straightjackets and the psych wards of the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. However, in a recent article in the publication Wired, writer Nick Stockton never uses the word “lobotomy” explicitly to describe a procedure that sounds very much like what used to be done to psychiatric patients in the past.

For those who are extremely ill, medications and therapies may not have worked. The new procedure done via laser surgery targets the areas of the brain that may alleviate the symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder.

The Procedure

Currently, the procedure is the only one approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration to treat individuals with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). It targets the area of the brain that is linked to severe OCD that is known as the anterior cingulate cortex.

Stockton wrote, “Functionally, the anterior cingulate cortex is involved in allocating brain power to certain tasks. That involves alerting you to a task’s urgency and giving you a feeling of satisfaction when the task is complete.” In those with obsessive compulsive disorder, the function is taken to the extreme, and it causes a person to feel that the least little thing is a large, pressing ordeal.

Stockton explained in the piece that this area of the brain that’s targeted by psychosurgeons. According to Dr. Sameer Steth who does the surgeries at the Columbia Medical Center explained to Stockton, “We do a small procedure, see how patients respond, and from that we can learn how to better do the next experiments.” Little by little, surgeons like Dr. Steth will burn away the afflicted portions of neurons; in the piece, Stockon described a procedure that removes approximately a half a teaspoon of the gray matter in the brain.

However, one issue is that it’s not clear whether it is just one area of the brain that’s responsible for OCD behaviors. Dr. Elizabeth Clark-Poner, a neuroscience postdoctoral scholar at the University of Chicago feels that as brain imaging abilities become better, it will grow more evident which area of the brain is assimilated with one behavior or patterns of behavior. She states, “This isn’t to say that ablating part of one of these anatomical regions can’t improve the symptoms of a complex disorder like OCD-it absolutely could-it just means that we have to be very careful, both in planning things like this, and in analyzing the data afterwards.”

In Conclusion

Most individuals with OCD do not qualify for the surgery, but those who have had the procedure, about half have had their brain functioning improve to normal quality. Early testing hints that the surgery could be an effective means of treatment depression too, but it has not yet been approved for this use yet. The recent discovery will be interesting to watch in the future, because it could revolutionize how obsessive compulsive disorder and possibly depression are treated. If successful, the treatment could help the sickest of the sick patients with OCD, be able to lead a better and more productive quality of life.

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