A new treatment for OCD could be on the horizon

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on May 5, 2023

A new treatment for OCD could be on the horizon

Researchers have studied a new treatment that could offer a new successful way to support those with OCD

It’s a condition that affects 1–2% of the population, sometimes significantly affecting their day-to-day lives, and is accompanied by other mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. But, now, a new treatment for OCD could be on the horizon.

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition where the individual experiences obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours. It affects men and women alike, and can begin in early childhood – though it most commonly begins in puberty and early adulthood. According to the NHS, ‘obsessions’ describe unwanted and unpleasant thoughts, images, or urges that can cause feelings of anxiety, unease, or disgust. ‘Compulsions’ then refer to repetitive behaviours or mental acts that the individual feels they need to do in order to relieve the unpleasant feelings brought on by the obsessive thoughts.

Research into the development of new OCD treatment is dramatically underfunded, with only 85p spent on OCD research per patient, per year, in the UK.

Currently, there are two main treatments for OCD. Firstly, talking therapy – commonly cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is used, and is believed to help individuals face their fears and obsessive thoughts directly, so they have less of a need to follow compulsions. The second option is medication, usually with an antidepressant such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or another antidepressant called clomipramine. Others will see some success by combining the two approaches. But are there other options out there?

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a non-invasive brain stimulation technique that applies a low electrical current to a specific area of the brain, via electrodes which have been placed on the scalp. And a new study from the University of Hertfordshire and OCD charity Orchard has recently been completed, wherein tDCS was used to treat patients with OCD.

In a sample of 20 people with OCD, the patients were tested with three rounds of tDCS, and their symptoms were measured before, during, and after the treatment. What the researchers saw was a reduction in their patients' symptoms for up to four hours following the treatment.

“I’m very pleased our initial research has shown that modern, non-invasive brain stimulation has so much potential as a method of treatment – and that it was well received by patients in the study,” says Professor Naomi Fineberg, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Hertfordshire. “We know that the effects of OCD are not only incredibly challenging for individuals living with the condition, but have a widespread impact on our healthcare services, education system and workforces. I hope this leads to larger-scale research that can make a real breakthrough in OCD management and treatment”.

Considering the results so far, Nick Sireau, founder of Orchard OCD, said: “This is promising news. Even though this is a small feasibility study, it shows that tDCS could potentially be a fast-acting treatment to help OCD patients achieve some form of relief when in the middle of an OCD crisis. A larger study will be needed to confirm this, to determine the optimal treatment parameters and hopefully obtain regulatory approval.”

Looking to the future, the next step for the team of researchers is to determine the impact and duration of the therapy’s effect, with the hope of offering an option that can have a significantly positive impact on the lives of those living with OCD.

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