The Perfectionist's Handbook

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OCD Genetics Update

Why we should be paying attention

A common misconception in the media and general public is that poor parenting or eccentric quirky preferences on the part of some individuals are the causes of OCD. While some aspects of OCD do involve learned behavior, it is becoming increasingly clear that OCD has strong biological and genetic influences.

In fact, earlier this week the Nature Publishing Group journal Molecular Psychiatry released the results of the first genome-wide association study (GWAS) of OCD. S. Evelyn Stewart, MD, and the International OCD Foundation Genetics Collaborative, examined approximately a half million locations along the DNA of over two thousand OCD-affected individuals, to look for differences compared to the DNA of control samples. Researchers from over 20 sites on 4 continents contributed to this work. Genome-wide studies are the gold standard of genetic research, and by completing this study, OCD research is now on par with research on other psychiatric disorders (example: schizophrenia) and neuropsychiatric disorders (example: epilepsy).

Why is genetics research useful? OCD is turning out to be much more complex than we initially thought. To trivialize it by saying a mother was too strict during toilet training with her child or these Type A personalities just need to “relax more” is dismissive of those struggling with the truly debilitating aspects of this disorder. By having a comprehensive and accurate understanding of what contributes to the onset of OCD, we are in a better position to develop more effective treatments. Genetics research is a critical component of this understanding.

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Here is one way in which this type of research could benefit us. These current findings point to genes involved in the activity of a chemical called glutamate. This is notable because it overlaps with other research showing that for some individuals with OCD, glutamate levels in certain regions of the brain are higher than normal. Still other preliminary research has shown that medications aimed at reducing glutamate may be more effective than other medications used for OCD for some individuals. This could be critical for individuals who have failed other OCD medication trials and gives them a new direction and possibility.

Another preliminary finding from this research is that some genes that are particularly active in the brain during childhood and adolescence, might be implicated in OCD. In many cases, OCD begins in childhood. By following up on these suggestive findings, we may have a better understanding of what is happening neurobiologically during development that might increase (or decrease) the likelihood of OCD setting in.

OCD research and understanding has suffered from the perception that it is really just a personality trait and is limited to hand washing and/or being overly organized. Genetics research helps to give important weight and credibility to this truly disabling disorder. The results of this GWAS study will lay an important foundation for future research and desperately needed answers.

Jeff Szymanski, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of the International OCD Foundation and author of The Perfectionist's Handbook.

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