Obsessive-compulsive disorder may reflect a propensity for bad habits

April 10, 2014, Elsevier

Two new studies published this week in Biological Psychiatry shed light on the propensity for habit formation in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). These studies suggest that a tendency to develop habits, i.e., the compulsive component of the disorder, may be a core feature of the disorder rather than a consequence of irrational beliefs. In other words, instead of washing one's hands because of the belief that they are contaminated, some people may develop concerns about hand contamination as a consequence of a recurring urge to wash their hands.

Habits are behaviors engrained by practice that enable us to perform very complex behaviors in a nearly automatic way, such as swinging a golf club or performing a piano sonata. Habits do not seem to be fully conscious goal-directed behaviors in that when one thinks about the details of the complex behavior, for example when trying to improve a golf swing, it often interferes with the expression of the habit.

Habits also appear to be defining characteristics of psychiatric disorders with prominent behavioral components, such as alcoholism, drug addiction, pathological gambling, and eating disorders. These new studies support the view that is also an important component of OCD.

Both studies were conducted by researchers at the University of Cambridge who compared habits and goal-directed behaviors in a group of people diagnosed with OCD and a matched group of healthy people. They found that the group with OCD had a greater tendency to develop avoidance habits and also displayed impairments of their goal-directed decision making.

"Habit formation is appearing to be a critical component of an increasing number of illnesses including eating disorders, addictions, and now OCD," commented Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. "For all of these conditions, we need to better understand the biology of habit formation to rationally develop new and more effective treatments."

"The bigger picture from these studies is that we have identified a model of compulsivity, which may extend beyond OCD and prove to be a good model of how people lose control over their own behavior more generally, and in other disorders of compulsivity, like addiction and some ," said Dr. Claire Gillan, corresponding author on both projects.

"Importantly, this model was derived from earlier work in both animals and humans which characterized dissociable neural systems supporting the balance between purposeful action and more automatic habits. The time is right for psychiatry to start moving away from diagnostic labels and instead focus of biological traits that transcend the current definitions of discrete disorders."

It is hoped that a greater level of biological precision will allow for the development of targeted treatments for individuals, and hopefully allow movement away from a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment. These studies are a step in this direction.

Explore further: The surprising truth about obsessive-compulsive thinking

More information: The articles are "Enhanced Avoidance Habits in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder" by Claire M. Gillan, Sharon Morein-Zamir, Gonzalo P. Urcelay, Akeem Sule, Valerie Voon, Annemieke M. Apergis-Schoute, Naomi A. Fineberg, Barbara J. Sahakian, and Trevor W. Robbins (DOI: 10.1016/ j.biopsych.2013.02.002) and "Counterfactual Processing of Economic Action-Outcome Alternatives in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Further Evidence of Impaired Goal-Directed Behavior" by Claire M. Gillan, Sharon Morein-Zamir, Muzaffer Kaser, Naomi A. Fineberg, Akeem Sule, Barbara J. Sahakian, Rudolf N. Cardinal, and Trevor W. Robbins (DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.01.018). The articles appear in Biological Psychiatry, Volume 75, Issue 8 (April 15, 2014).

Related Stories

The surprising truth about obsessive-compulsive thinking

April 8, 2014
People who check whether their hands are clean or imagine their house might be on fire are not alone. New research from Concordia University and 15 other universities worldwide shows that 94 per cent of people experience ...

New research provides insight into how obsessive-compulsive disorder develops

May 23, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- New scientific evidence challenges a popular conception that behaviours such as repetitive hand-washing, characteristic of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), are carried out in response to disturbing ...

Dogs, humans affected by OCD have similar brain abnormalities

June 4, 2013
Another piece of the puzzle to better understand and treat obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) has fallen into place with the publication of new research that shows that the structural brain abnormalities of Doberman pinschers ...

An advance in understanding drug 'habits' and their treatment

March 26, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—Cocaine promotes habitual behaviours and these can potentially be reversed with the use of an antioxidant, research at the University of Sydney has shown.

Addicted to tanning? Research looks at correlation between OCD, body dysmorphia and tanning addiction

February 19, 2014
They keep tanning, even after turning a deep brown and experiencing some of the negative consequences. Skin cancer is among the most common, preventable types of the disease, yet many continue to tan to excess.

Mothers and OCD children trapped in rituals have impaired relationships

April 10, 2012
A new study from Case Western Reserve University finds mothers tend to be more critical of children with obsessive-compulsive disorder than they are of other children in the family. And, that parental criticism is linked ...

Recommended for you

People with prosthetic arms less affected by common illusion

January 22, 2018
People with prosthetic arms or hands do not experience the "size-weight illusion" as strongly as other people, new research shows.

Study of learning and memory problems in OCD helps young people unlock potential at school

January 22, 2018
Adolescents with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have widespread learning and memory problems, according to research published today. The findings have already been used to assist adolescents with OCD obtain the help ...

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

College branding makes beer more salient to underage students

January 18, 2018
In recent years, major beer companies have tried to capitalize on the salience of students' university affiliations, unveiling marketing campaigns and products—such as "fan cans," store displays, and billboard ads—that ...

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.