What Causes OCD? Scientists May Have Discovered The Brain Receptor Responsible For It

While we talk a lot about the signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and possible treatment for it, what causes OCD often remains something of a mystery. But new research may go some ways towards explaining the root of the condition: According to researchers from Duke University, a single brain receptor might cause people to partake in obsessive behaviors, such as excessive hand-washing or repeatedly checking to make sure the front door is locked. While it's true that the study wasn't conducted on humans and therefore requires much more research to determine whether or not the findings are wide-reaching, the implications of these results are pretty big — and they might go a long way towards helping people successfully treat the condition.

Before we get into the findings of this specific research study, it's a good idea to review some of the symptoms and signs of OCD first. OCD manifests differently in different people, but according to the National Institute of Mental Health, it may be defined as "a common, chronic and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over." According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), OCD compulsions typically involve repetitions that must occur a certain way in order for negative feelings, such as fear or anxiety, to go away, even if the person may rationally recognize their actions are not necessary.

But no matter how OCD manifests, it's never a joke. In fact, OCD can be debilitating for people who have it. Very often in the media, OCD is depicted in a flippant, off-hand manner that pokes fun at the illness; we also have a tendency to make jokes about it all too often. In reality, though, OCD is not a punchline, and both it and people who have it always deserve to be treated with respect.


While research is always a good thing, it's especially important that research on OCD is now moving to include determining what, exactly, the cause may be. In the current study, which appears in the May 2016 issue of Biological Psychiatry, researchers bred mice that lacked Sapap3, a gene that is responsible for the formation of synapses between brain cells. As explained over at IFL Science, researchers then examined the "neural activity in a region of the mice’s brains called the dorsolateral striatum (DS), which contains cells called striatal projection neurons (SPNs) that play a major role in coordinating activity." They found that the DS and two types of SPNs were forming pathways known as direct and indirect pathways. In layman's terms, when the SPNS of the direct pathway are stimulated, they generally promote action, whereas when SPNS in the indirect pathway are stimulated, they inhibit activity.


When comparing regular mice to mice that lacked the Sapap3 gene, researchers discovered that the mice without it often had an overactive direct pathway, seemingly explaining why they are so prone to repeating the same actions over and over. When scientists did even more digging, they realize that a specific chemical receptor, called mGluR5, was consistently active in the brains of the mice who lacked Sapap3. This finding suggests that mGluR5 may control the hyperactivity of the brain circuits that coordinate action, thus possibly explaining why so many people with OCD have both obsessive thoughts and obsessive actions.

The study has its limitations, of course; for one, it needs to be replicated with human subjects before we can make any conclusions about how OCD functions in people. But it offers a lot of hope in terms of treatment for OCD; after all, knowing the cause of an issue is essential for strategizing ways to treat it. Here's hoping this is just the first in many more studies that might help determine the cause of OCD.

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