Zapping the brains of people with OCD could soon help them before symptoms even start.
Around one in 50 people suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) during their lives, and there are more than a million people with the condition in the UK.
It can involve compulsive hand-washing, repeated checks that doors are locked and the oven is off, and repetitive, anxious thoughts which can leave people unable to leave the house, work and hold down relationships.
Now scientists have an insight into the brain signals which kick in before people start rituals or checks.
That could allow them to zap the brain with targeted pulses of electricity to disrupt the signals and prevent symptoms.
So-called deep brain stimulation, which involves surgery to place electrodes in the brain, has already been used for decades, helping hundreds of people with severe OCD worldwide.
But more targeted brain stimulation which is only used when symptoms are about to start, or is dialled up when they are particularly severe, could be more effective.
Dialling down brain stimulation when someone’s OCD is less severe could avoid stimulation boosting their mood too strongly – a side-effect which can lead to risk-taking behaviour like gambling, speeding or binge-drinking.
People who are too hard on themselves may be more likely to develop OCD or anxiety (stock)
Scientists worked out the brain signals involved minute-to-minute when OCD kicks in by tracking five people with the debilitating condition.
The two men and three women, aged 31 to 40, had symptoms such as compulsive cleaning and checking rituals which began when they were children or teenagers.
Conventional treatments including anti-depressants and therapy had failed for them.
In a study lasting 18 months, the people with OCD were asked to do things they might find uncomfortable, like touching a light switch which may be dirty, or allowing someone with a dirty hand to touch them, to see how their brain reacted.
The results showed the signal involved, which appears to be brainwaves of a specific frequency from the ‘reward’ region of the brain.
Brainwaves are the electrical activity from brain cells ‘talking’ to each other.
Zapping the brain can block cells in the reward centre from disrupting the frontal part of the brain and preventing it from making rational decisions.
Dr David Borton, senior author of the study on people with OCD, from Brown University in the US, said: ‘OCD can be incredibly debilitating, with cleaning rituals or compulsive checking taking up 100 per cent of people’s time and mental energy.
‘For the most severely affected, they can feel mentally trapped, unable to leave their home because of the fear that they may become contaminated with dirt or something bad could happen.
‘Brain stimulation which reacts to symptoms and their severity could really help people with OCD.’
The study, published in the journal Nature Medicine, recorded people’s OCD in a doctor’s clinic and going about their everyday lives.
The five volunteers recorded how bad their symptoms were, with their facial expression and head movements also recorded to judge how negatively their mood was affected by obsessive compulsive episodes.
Cutting-edge data monitoring allowed researchers to link brainwaves to the ebbs and flows of the condition.
Brain stimulation needs to be improved because up to 40 per cent of people don’t respond to traditional drugs or therapy, and 10 per cent respond to neither, researchers said.
But greater knowledge of what is going on in the brain could also lead to treatments which do not involve brain surgery and could benefit more people.