Scientists May Have Found the Root of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder—Here’s What You Need to Know

Updated: Aug. 31, 2018

When you have OCD, your brain is literally under attack, says a new scientific study. The good news is that this may be the key to your finding relief.


For someone with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), just getting out of the house for work in the morning can become an ordeal. On the way out the door, you pause to wipe the kitchen counter with a sponge. You look at your watch and know you should leave, but you’re pretty sure you should wipe the counter just once more to make sure you didn’t miss a crumb. So you do—seven more times, and it’s precisely what you do every morning. You know it doesn’t make rational sense, and yet you can’t help but do it. There may be hope for this relentless condition: A new study suggests that brain inflammation may be at the root of OCD.

OCD is characterized by uncontrollable, recurring thoughts and behaviors, and it affects approximately 2 percent of the population. Current medications for it work in only about two-thirds of its sufferers. However, a new study by the Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, may provide the scientific and medical community with promising new direction for treating the disorder. The researchers, led by senior author Jeffrey Meyer, MD, Canada Research Chair in the Neurochemistry of Major Depression, used a type of brain imaging known as positron emission tomography (PET) to observe the brains of 40 physically healthy, non-smoking, drug- and medication-free volunteers, 20 with OCD, and 20 who didn’t. Inflammation in areas of the brain linked to OCD were, on average, 32 percent higher in people with the condition than in non-OCD volunteers.

The inflammation worsened when OCD volunteers tried to resist their compulsions. Inflammation is the body’s response to infection or injury, Dr. Meyer explains in a CAMH press release about the study. Although this response is intended to help the body heal, in some cases, it can be harmful.

“Medications developed to target brain inflammation in other disorders could be useful in treating OCD,” says Dr. Meyer. “Work needs to be done to uncover the specific factors that contribute to brain inflammation, but finding a way to reduce inflammation’s harmful effects and increase its helpful effects could enable us to develop a new treatment much more quickly.” Those other disorders include depression, Dr. Meyer discovered in an earlier study.