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‘Brain scan able to detect OCD’

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Nursing Times’ weekly Behind the Headlines series sifts the facts from the fiction

What did the media report?

The media reported that scientists have, for the first time, pinpointed differences in the way the brains of patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) work compared with other people.

What did the research show?

The UK researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure real-time brain activity in the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, which is located in the brain’s frontal lobes and is involved in decision-making and behavioural control.

The study involved 14 patients with OCD, 14 immediate relatives of these patients and 14 controls. The subjects, who were volunteers, completed a picture test designed to stimulate ‘behavioural flexibility’.

During the test, the researchers said that OCD patients and their close relatives showed abnormally reduced activity in several cortical regions, including the lateral orbitfrontal cortex, compared with controls.

What did the researchers say?

Lead author Dr Samuel Chamberlain, a psychiatrist at Cambridge University, said: ‘Impaired function in brain areas controlling flexible behaviour probably predisposes people to developing the compulsive rigid symptoms that are characteristic of OCD.

‘This study shows that these brain changes run in families. The current diagnosis of OCD is subjective and improved understanding of the underlying causes of OCD could lead to more accurate diagnosis and improved clinical treatments,’ he said. ‘However, much work is still needed to identify the genes contributing to abnormal brain function in those at risk of OCD.’

What does this mean for nursing practice?

Ashley Fulwood, chief executive of the charity OCD-UK, said the research was not advanced enough at present for it to change frontline clinical practice. But he added: ‘We very much welcome this research if it leads to earlier detection of those at possible risk of developing OCD. It is important to be cautious at this stage but we would very much welcome a larger research study.’

Science (2008) 321: 421–422

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