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Researchers get grant to investigate new OCD treatment

By
Contributing Writer
Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Brown professors are among a team of researchers that recently received a $10.5 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study a new treatment for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Brown faculty will lead two of the study’s six sub-projects.

OCD, an anxiety disorder, affects more than 2 percent of the world’s population and can be debilitating. OCD treatment regularly includes medication and cognitive therapy.

But deep brain stimulation may soon be more common in treating the disorder. The therapy, which is the focus of the study, involves surgically inserting an electrode in the patient’s brain. The electrode connects to a pacemaker-like device in the chest that sends the brain electrical impulses.

DBS therapy has proven effective as a treatment for other conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease.

Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior Ben Greenberg of the Alpert Medical School is leading a project to investigate the efficacy of DBS as OCD treatment. Greenberg recruited Professor of Medical Science Barry Connors — who is heading his own sub-project to study the cellular effects of DBS — to the project.

If Greenberg’s team finds that DBS consistently helps treat the disorder, doctors will have a strong case for expanding its use, which Greenberg said is currently restricted to only the most extreme cases of OCD.

Greenberg’s project is one of several in the larger study.

Suzanne Haber, a pharmacology and physiology professor at the University of Rochester, is the principal investigator of the study. There are several sub-projects based at various institutions, she said, including the two at Brown.

“The components of the group address the same question but from different angles,” Haber said.

The study grew out of an existing OCD research program that included Greenberg, Haber, and Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior Steven Rasmussen, all of whom focus their research on OCD. Now, with the help of the NIMH grant, the program has expanded to include researchers who are only beginning to apply their expertise to the disorder.

One such newcomer is Connors, who chairs the Department of Neuroscience. While Greenberg tests humans to find out if DBS works, Connors will test animals to learn how DBS functions on brain cells.

Very little research exists on the effects high-frequency currents — like those involved in DBS — have on brain cells, Connors said. His research aims to determine whether DBS merely disrupts activity in an area of the brain or whether it actually enhances brain function.

To examine the currents’ effects on the brain, Connors’ team will study the areas of mouse brains that correspond to OCD-related areas in the human brain, such as the basal ganglia. This collection of nuclei contain the neural pathways responsible for balancing risk and reward ­— making them a key area in OCD and the target of DBS therapy.

One advantage of DBS is its reversability. It alters brain function without killing cells, making it different from traditional, lesion-based surgery, which always causes permanent changes.

Lesion surgery is “a one-way street,” Connors said. “You take out a little piece of brain, and it’s gone.”

Though DBS is in its early stages and presents a hopeful avenue for the future of OCD treatment, Haber said this research already has tangible benefits.

“The science is benefitting from the patients, and the patients are benefitting from the science,” Haber said. “It’s really a two-way street.”

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