The Science Behind OCD

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

Most people have heard of OCD, but what is the science behind the cause of this mental disorder? Obsessive-compulsive disorder, also known as OCD, is a mental health illness that causes unwanted thoughts or feelings that lead to compulsive, repetitive actions; it affects approximately 1 in 100 children in the United States. These actions usually interfere with a person’s daily activities and can cause different levels of stress. An example of obsessive thought is the fear of germs or of contamination, which leads to compulsive behavior, in this case involving repeated hand washing. People who have this disorder try to rid themselves of these urges through the completion of a ritual.

Typically, people who have OCD fall into one of the following categories: checkers, washers, counters/arrangers, and intrusive thinkers. People who are checkers repeatedly check locks, switches, or even examine themselves for medical conditions. Washers fear contamination and usually have compulsions relating to hand washing or cleaning. Counters/arrangers must have objects lined up in a certain way, often having superstitions relating to the colors or numbers of different things. People with intrusive thoughts obsess over a certain line of thinking and these can be disturbing or violent.

What makes OCD such a fascinating topic in the field of neuroscience is that the cause of the disorder is not entirely known to scientists; however, there are many theories. Some research suggests that OCD is a result of problems in communication within the brain, specifically between the frontal lobe and the deeper parts. A neurotransmitter (a chemical substance used to transmit signals) called serotonin is thought to play a role in the cause of OCD. Medication to control serotonin levels have been shown to make parts of the brain that affect OCD more normal in some people, but more evidence is needed to make a definite conclusion.

Another interesting thought on the cause of this disorder is through genetics. This has been found to run in families and can play a role in the development of OCD. Genes are not 100% the reason why people develop OCD, but they offer insight into the nature of this mental health issue. The stress of normal life or other psychological factors could weigh in more heavily than compared to a family member who has OCD.

Infections, believe it or not, can cause a form of OCD known as Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal infections or PANDAS for short. This rare disease is believed to affect 1 in 200 children and is a fairly new condition that may lead to discoveries on the exact cause of OCD. This example is an extreme version of OCD where signs of obsessive-compulsive behavior appear suddenly contrary to the normal kind. The way this infection attacks the brain can potentially be studied to find out why OCD occurs.

As of now, however, there remains to be a true cure for this disease. There are ways to manage the symptoms of OCD like through psychotherapy which can see people find relief from symptoms, but scientists continue to search for the root cause.

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