Researchers have both created and relieved symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in genetically modified mice using a technique that turns brain cells on and off with light, known as optogenetics. The work, by two separate teams, confirms the neural circuits that contribute to the condition and points to treatment targets. It also provides insight into how quickly compulsive behaviours can develop — and how quickly they might be soothed. The results of the studies are published in Science1, 2.
Brain scanning in humans with OCD has pointed to two areas — the orbitofrontal cortex, just behind the eyes, and the striatum, a hub in the middle of the brain — as being involved in the condition's characteristic repetitive and compulsive behaviours. But “in people we have no way of testing cause and effect”, says Susanne Ahmari, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York who led one of the studies. It is not clear, for example, whether abnormal brain activity causes the compulsions, or whether the behaviour simply results from the brain trying to hold symptoms at bay by compensating. “There’s been a big debate in the field,” says Satinder Kaur Singh of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, who studies molecules involved in OCD-like disorders but was not involved in the new studies. “What the Ahmari paper shows is that it is causative.”