Brain and Body

Researchers Find an On-Switch for OCD in the Brain

July 19, 2016 | Gillian Burrell

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A study in mice points to the neurotransmitter and receptor behind the psychiatric disorder.

A team of researchers at Duke University announced Friday (July 15) that they have pinpointed a receptor in the brain that acts as an on-switch for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in mice.

Reporting in the journal Biological Psychiatry, the scientists say that the mGluR5s receptor, which is also present in human brains, could be targeted with new drugs for faster treatment of OCD.

Current treatment options for people suffering from OCD are limited to antidepressants since antianxiety medications have been found to be less effective, but even if they work, antidepressants take weeks to kick in. The development of better treatments for OCD has been hindered by our lack of understanding of the root cause of the psychiatric disorder, which is why this recent finding is so exciting.

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The researchers, led by Nicole Calako, honed in on mGluR5s by studying a breed of mice that display symptoms of OCD, like excessive grooming and anxiety. They first noticed that the mGluR5s receptors were highly active in the brains of these mice, and when they dosed the mice with a chemical to block the receptor, the mice stopped exhibiting their OCD-like symptoms.

“The reversibility of the symptoms was immediate — on a minute time frame,” Calakos said in a statement.

To confirm that mGluR5s was responsible for the mice’s compulsive behaviors, Calako’s team then took normal laboratory mice and gave them a drug to increase activity of mGluR5s. These mice immediately began to groom excessively and behave anxiously.

If new drugs could be developed that reduce mGluR5s activity, we could have an exciting new treatment for OCD on our hands — one that works within minutes, not weeks. Already, researchers are trying to develop and approve these types of drugs for treating Parkinson’s disease, but so far, nothing has made it through clinical trials.

Calako also warns that we don’t know if this strategy will be effective in human patients with OCD. And even if it is, we still have to discover “which people and which compulsive behaviors? We don’t know yet.”

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