17 February 2009

Clues to solving the mystery of OCD

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is portrayed comically in the detective series Monk. But in real life it can be very debilitating. Fortunately, new research provides hope.

The intriguing television character Monk brings entertainment to our living rooms with both his brilliant detective work and his peculiar behaviour.

Detective Monk’s behaviour can be attributed to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which refers to a condition characterised by time-consuming, anxiety-provoking and intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and subsequent repetitive behaviours (compulsions). These obsessions and compulsions can be grouped into a number of “symptom” categories such as contamination fears and washing, harm-related fears and checking to prevent harm, and concerns with symmetry and neatness and ordering rituals.

Yet contrary to the comical way it is portrayed in the detective series, in real life OCD can be extremely debilitating.

Number of factors play a role
Similar to Monk’s unrelenting investigations, researchers at the MRC Unit on Anxiety and Stress Disorders are doing scientific detective work of their own to uncover the factors that contribute to the onset of OCD, or “the secretive illness” as it is sometimes called. However, finding ‘who-dunnit’ for the onset of OCD in real life is a bit more challenging than for the TV Detective Monk, who always finds the culprit!

Some evidence seems to suggest that a number of factors, including genetic factors, play a role in the onset of OCD, and researchers have found that OCD often run in families, and identical twins have been found to have a 70% chance of sharing the disorder.

With new technological advances being made, researchers are now also able to use brain imaging in their search for clues to brain-based explanations of OCD. For example, with the help of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a non-invasive brain-imaging technique, researchers are able to “see” which parts of the brain become activated during certain tasks/actions. Using this technique, researchers previously found that persons with OCD has increased activation in those brain areas involved in processing emotional information compared to persons without OCD.

Novel research undertaken
Following on this lead, the researchers at the MRC Unit on Anxiety and Stress Disorders are using a new angle to solve the case of OCD, by investigating specific brain areas, via fMRI, that process emotional information.

To do this, volunteers with OCD and healthy controls (i.e. people without OCD) are firstly screened for suitability at the Medical School of Stellenbosch University, Tygerberg. If they qualify for participation, the person goes into the fMRI scanner and is asked to complete a few computer-based tasks that are similar to basic computer games.

So far, a number of persons have been screened, of which five have been scanned and tested already. This process will render clues about the possibly unique structure and function of those OCD-targeted areas of the brain. Researchers believe this will indeed yield novel insights into brain functioning in OCD. An understanding of these factors that contribute to the manifestation of OCD will assist in attempts to prevent and cure this condition.

If you would like to assist the researchers in their search for clues, please contact Dr Christine Lochner (Tel: 021 - 938 9179, e-mail: or Ms Jemona Mostert (Tel: 021 – 938 9762, email: for more information.


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