There is a relatively new field of research known as computational psychiatry, which focuses on the development of mathematical models to better understand defects in the brain — defects that lead to adverse behaviors.
A new study published in the journal Neuron discusses findings from this type of research into the fundamental processes of OCD. Senior author Benedetto De Martino says:
“Medicine today is very much about decoding the mechanisms in the body. When we are talking about something like a heart valve, that’s a mechanical part that can be clearly understood. But the brain is a computational device that has no mechanical parts, so we need to develop mathematical tools to understand what happens when something goes wrong with a brain computation and generates a disease. This study shows that the actions of people with OCD often don’t take into account what they’ve already learned.”
In other words, what those with OCD know as true does not correlate with how they act. De Martino uses hand washing as an example. Some people with OCD know their hands are clean, but still they can’t stop washing them. That is a separation of belief and action. It’s interesting to note that the degree of separation between beliefs and actions directly corresponds to the severity of OCD symptoms.
To those of us familiar with obsessive-compulsive disorder, this is not surprising news. We already know that those with OCD are typically aware their compulsions make no sense, but are unable to stop them. De Martino, however, is hopeful that continued studies will be beneficial. He says:
“Just as studying people with lesions in the hippocampus has historically taught us about the inner workings of memory, studying people with OCD can give us new insights into how beliefs and actions are linked.”
Christopher Pittenger, director of the OCD research clinic at Yale University finds the study interesting, but also acknowledges it can be difficult to generalize findings from computerized methodology to the real world. Dr. Pittenger says, “In order to make things trackable, you make them simple.” As we know, the real world is not simple, especially a world with OCD, so it is important to repeat these studies with different types of tasks. You can read here for more details about the study and what tasks were used.
I understand that studying the brain in relation to the disconnect between belief and action has potential value, both in understanding OCD and in treating it. How great it would be if researchers could actually pinpoint the physical cause of OCD and other brain disorders! Still, I have to admit I’ve yet to wrap my head around computational psychiatry for OCD. I think it’s because I’m so used to dealing with the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of those with the disorder, it’s hard to put that all aside and just focus on the science.
The bottom line is we need both — the researchers who work tirelessly to unlock the secrets of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the professionals, advocates, and loved ones who continue to support those who are truly suffering from the disorder. Together, hopefully, we can beat OCD.