Obsessive-compulsive Disorder is a distressing anxiety disorder, to put it mildly. These individuals with the disorder face repeated routines and thought patterns that put much of their life in a tailspin. Now, research out of a laboratory at the University of Michigan may have provided a key to understanding how OCD gets its power.
One portion of the brain, the rostral anterior cingulated cortex (rACC), appears to be tracking what are called “costly mistakes” and basing behavior and thought processes on those mistakes. This portion of the brain appeared to have heightened activity when there was a penalty associated with costly test mistakes. The research in the Journal of Neuroscience looked at brains of 12 healthy adults on which they had run functional MRIs as subjects took a series of tests.
Whether the test questions carried a reward or a penalty determined the firing of the brain’s sensitive rACC area. Researchers referred to this as an exaggerated error response. According to the researchers, this activity may be directly related to the role of emotional reaction to errors in OCD. The lead researcher, William Gehring, Ph.D., had believed this to be true, but it was only when the fMRI was used did he receive confirmation of his proposed relationship between emotion and OCD. Not only did the imaging validate his belief, it outlined the area of the brain specifically involved.
The next phase of the research will be to explore the impact of cognitive therapy on OCD patients and track any changes in this portion of the brain’s activity after the therapy. The hope is that more specifically tailored treatments for OCD will result.