OCD ( obsessive–compulsive disorder ) is a psychiatric mental disorder characterized by obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors that significantly interfere with normal life. People with OCD have obsessions that are unwanted and repetitive, followed by disturbing thoughts and they are unable to suppress it. Statistics data claims that over four million people in the U.S. suffer from OCD and affects men, women, and children regardless of social and educational background.

A team of neuroscientists from the University of Cambridge in the UK conducted a learning experiment and brain-scanning study of over 78 people: 43 of them had an obsessive disorder, while 35 acted as a control group. The experiment goal was to test the success rate of so-called exposure therapy–confronting fears to overcome them.

OCD Cycle

OCD contains both obsessions and compulsions. The most common symptoms of the obsessive disorder are fear of contamination, making a mistake causing harm to another, or urgent need for exactness. On the other side, symptoms of compulsions are cleaning or washing, counting or repeating, organizing, and so on. Not all people with this disorder have both obsessions and compulsions. Approximately 20 percent have only obsessions or only compulsions. This mental disorder pool includes other mood troubles, such as depression or bipolar disorder, creating the so-called OCD cycle.

OCD cycle

The usual treatment for this condition is exposure therapy. This type of therapy trains people by triggering their deepest fears without doing their accompanying rituals. But it appears that this therapy isn’t as successful as expected. Some people were not responsive to therapy, so Cambridge neuroscientists want to know why this is happening.

The team asked participants to lie in an fMRI scanner, which measured their brain activity as they watched two types of pictures: red and green faces. While they were watching green faces, participants received an electrical shock. No electrical shock was received when viewing the red faces. After a while, researchers swapped roles, so the green face was without shock and the red was accompanied by it. The control group without OCD quickly learned these changes, so they were aware that the green was safe now. On the other side, the participants with the disorder couldn’t recognize the changes, not realizing that the green was no longer a threat.

OCD participants were less able to register the real threat than the swapped one showing that their brains may find it significantly harder to unlearn negative associations

According to the neuroscientist Annemieke Apergis-Schoute, one of a team member at the Cambridge’s Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, this needs to be taken into consideration when developing future therapies to tackle the disorder. Her colleague Naomi Fineberg agrees, pointing out that the bit of afflicted individuals’ brains that should be telling them, “It’s safe!” isn’t working.

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