Behaviors may represent distinct syndromes


Actions found to originate in different areas of brain

July 23, 2004|By Jamie Talan | Jamie Talan,NEWSDAY

NEW YORK - Scientists say they have unearthed a clue to solving the mystery of obsessive-compulsive disorder - the trait characterized with humor on the TV detective series Monk.

But OCD, as it's known, is rarely a laughing matter. Rather, its hallmarks are three behaviors: hand-washing, checking and hoarding, each carried out in the extreme.

Now a study points to an understanding of the condition - and goes on to say the different behaviors might represent distinctly different syndromes.

Scientists have demonstrated that each of the three behaviors activated a different brain region. Their study was published in the latest issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

They found that patients with hand-washing obsessions experienced activity in one brain region when presented with thoughts of dirty toilets and other germ-infested objects. The brains of patients called "hoarders" experienced activity in a different brain region when presented with piles of papers. "Checkers," who compulsively check on such things as whether appliances have been turned off, experienced activity in yet another brain region when shown pictures of kettles and irons.

The researchers expressed hope the findings could lead to new ways to understand and treat this condition, which is thought to affect from 1 percent to 3 percent of the population.

"Experts have always viewed OCD as one condition," said David Mataix-Cols of the Institute of Psychiatry in London.

He and his colleagues studied 16 OCD patients, 11 being treated in the London hospital, along with 17 healthy volunteers. The scientists conducted brain scans as the participants viewed pictures and were asked to think about specific events.

A simultaneous recording would instruct them to "Imagine touching the following objects" as pictures of dirty toilet bowls, money and a door knob appeared. "Imagine you forgot to turn off the following appliances," with pictures of a tea kettle, an iron and car brakes. And "Imagine the objects belong to you but must be thrown away forever," with a display of stacks of newspapers and empty containers.

Washing, checking and hoarding provoked different brain circuits, and OCD patients showed more activity in these regions than did the volunteers. Interestingly, washing and checking triggered some overlapping activity, but the checking behavior called on another region that regulates motor activity.

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