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Researchers aim to find quick fix for disorder

By Colleen Honigsberg

May 10, 2004 9:00 pm

Sufferers of a common psychiatric illness can make a conscious
decision to change their biology.

Individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder can change their
brain activity through cognitive behavioral therapy over the course
of a year, according to a recent UCLA study.

The same researchers, hailing from the UCLA Neuropsychiatric
Institute and biobehavioral sciences department, are now furthering
their study to determine whether the changes can be made in as
little as three weeks.

A common anxiety disorder, OCD affects 2 to 3 percent of the
population and is characterized by irrational fears and compulsive
rituals that may take over an hour a day to complete.

The illness also has a likely genetic component, based on
studies of monozygotic twins who were found to share the disorder
60 percent of the time.

“Our study has shown that biology is not destiny ““
human will can overcome it. It’s very empowering,” said
Eda Gorbis, an assistant clinical professor at NPI.

People with OCD tend to have higher metabolic activity in
certain areas of the brain.

It has long been known that this activity could be reduced in
some individuals by drug therapy. But the question of whether
cognitive behavioral therapy could have the same impact was

The therapy in this study includes two main themes and is given
in an intense, five-days-a-week program.

The first theme is exposure treatment where the subject is
placed in a stressful situation but is not allowed to react

For example, one subject, who has an irrational fear of germs
and is compulsive about washing, said he was asked to touch dirty
objects such as shoes and then not allowed to wash his hands.

The cognitive approach of the therapy consists of examining why
these fears exist and helping the subject to see ““ if he or
she does not already, ““ that they are unfounded and

Under this intensive cognitive behavioral therapy, 75 percent of
the subjects experienced a change in symptoms in as little as three
weeks, said Sanjaya Saxena, an assistant professor in psychiatry
and biobehavioral sciences.

The therapy has had tremendous impact on many of the subjects
who participated, many of whom did not respond to drug therapy.

In some cases, the disorder prevented the patients from
maintaining a job and leading normal lives because of their

“For me, the study has been life-changing and the right
thing to work on,” said one subject, who wished to remain
unidentified. “It’s a very strange disease to watch
yourself doing nonsense.”

Some of the subjects suffered from such extreme cases of OCD
that they were referred to the study by the Fire or Health
Department because their symptoms were causing potential

Hoarding, a common symptom of OCD, causes an individual to
compulsively retain large amounts of a certain item, such as old
magazines or plastic bags.

Eventually, as was the case for many of the subjects, the person
aggregated so much of the object, it created a fire hazard by
blocking the hallways and entrances of his or her home.

Many of these subjects would not only keep their old magazines
but would also retrieve magazines they would find in other
people’s trash cans, Saxena said.

If the researchers find in the current study that brain patterns
can be changed in as little as three weeks, the results will likely
impact the treatments of other psychiatric disorders as well.

“If we find what we’re looking for, short-term
therapy could be the answer to psychiatric disorders,” Gorbis
said. “It eliminates the dangers of drug therapy,” she

With the finding that people can alter their brain metabolic
activities through their actions, Gorbis believes sufferers of OCD
will give much more credence to free will and will have more faith
that they can overcome the idiosyncrasies of their biological

Gorbis and Saxena are currently looking for additional subjects
to participate in their free study.

For more information about participating in the study,
please visit

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Colleen Honigsberg
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