Scientists Link OCD to Immune System Problems

by on January 25th, 2012 at 7:00 am

Obsessive Compulsive DisorderObsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a debilitating mental illness. People with OCD feel great anxiety. They’re trapped in a loop of repetitive thoughts known as obsessions.

Many OCD patients seek relief from these obsessions by engaging in compulsive behavior. Such behavior involves performing repetitive tasks such as counting or hand-washing.

But new research provides insight into potential causes of OCD. During the past few years, scientists have learned that this anxiety disorder may be linked to immunological problems.

Several studies have found that patients with OCD have smaller numbers of some immune system cells and signs of autoimmune activity.

Last year, four scientists from Firat University, a Turkish college, published research showing immunological differences between OCD patients and people who had no physical or mental problems.1

By using blood tests, the scientists found that patients with OCD had lower levels of neutrophils, which are white blood cells that help the human immune system fight off invading microorganisms.2

“The mean neutrophil count of the patient group [OCD patients] was lower compared to that of the control subjects….,” say the scientists in their study.

Several years ago, scientists from the UK, India, and Germany found a link between OCD and autoimmunity, a condition in which a person’s immune system attacks his or her own body.3,4

In 2009, they published their research in a study entitled, Anti-Brain Autoantibodies and Altered Excitatory Neurotransmitters in Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder.

The study shows that the scientists conducted tests on twenty-three OCD patients and found that the patients had autoantibodies targeting two parts of the brain — the basal ganglia and the thalamus.

Autoantibodies are antibodies, or proteins, that attack the body’s own tissue.5 So, in the 2009 study, immune system cells were found to be attacking parts of the brain in OCD patients.

But what creates anti-brain antibodies in these patients? In 2005, scientists devised a theory.

In a study, they determined that obsessive-compulsive disorder may result from a streptococcal infection.6 They learned that OCD patients had the same antibodies found in a disorder associated with streptococcal infections.

These new insights into the causes of OCD may provide scientists with new ways to help people suffering from the disorder.

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  1. Murad Atmaca et al, “Neutrophils Are Decreased in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Preliminary Investigation,” Psychiatry Investigation.
  2. Dr. Ken Miyasaki, “Phagocytes-Neutrophils,” UCLA School of Dentistry
  3. Sagnik Bhattacharyya et al, “Anti-Brain Autoantibodies and Altered Excitatory Neurotransmitters in Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder,” Neuropsychopharmacology.
  4. Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, “What is Autoimmunity?
  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “NIH Study Shows 32 Million Americans Have Autoantibodies That Target Their Own Tissues,” NIH News.
  6. Russell C. Dale, Isobel Heyman, and Gavin Giovannoni, “Incidence of Anti-Brain Antibodies in Children with Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder,” The British Journal of Psychiatry.

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