OCD Research Clinic preps for future

The Yale Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Research Clinic hopes to increase awareness of the disorder and alleviate symptoms.
The Yale Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Research Clinic hopes to increase awareness of the disorder and alleviate symptoms. Photo by Victor Kang.

For the past 25 years, the Yale Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Research Clinic has been at the forefront of groundbreaking research to help the comprehension and treatment of OCD.

Under the leadership of Director Christopher Pittenger ’94 GRD ’94 and Assistant Director Michael Bloch, the research center has continued to gain renown for its clinical and lab-based OCD research. As OCD Awareness Week — which lasts from Oct. 8 until Oct. 14. — begins, the clinic continues its focus on raising awareness of the disorder within the New Haven community.

The disorder, Pittenger said, affects 2 percent of the population on average. Symptoms of the disorder include a fear of being contaminated, making mistakes and hurting oneself or others. These fears are often accompanied by compulsions to act in ways that alleviate these stresses, such as excessive cleaning or elaborate rituals. While it is rare to cure the disease, the clinic aims to alleviate these symptoms in OCD patients so that they can function on a normal level.

Pittenger said the clinic’s current research focuses on the brain’s glutamate neurotransmitter system. The clinic’s research examines the neurobiological and genetic abnormalities in the brain with the ultimate goal of normalizing these irregularities. To do so, he said, the researchers are studying the effects of Riluzole, an FDA-approved drug that is used to treat Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and Lou Gehrig’s disease, on OCD patients.

So far, Riluzole has been shown to help about two-thirds of trial patients alleviate OCD symptoms.

The glutamate hypothesis ­— which states glutamate may play a role in normalizing OCD symptoms — has gained repute in the field, Pettinger said. Genetic evidence, MR Spectrocopy results and cerebral fluid measurements have continued to show positive signs that the clinic is pursuing the correct path, he added.

The clinic’s project scope will expand over the next five years, as two new studies will complement the current work on glutamate, Pittenger said.

One is a five-year project that questions whether the different manifestations of OCD are different varieties of one disease or symptoms of a different disorder. To answer this question, the clinic will scan the brains of 100 people with OCD and 100 control subjects.

“I’m trying to get not just measures of glutamate, but measures of basically everything — structure, brain function, intelligence tests … ” Pittenger said.

Ultimately, he added, the data they receive will be an invaluable resource for undergraduate students who seek a database of comparative brain scans for research.

The second project is a biofeedback study that could ultimately find a drug-free way of alleviating the anxiety associated with OCD. The project, Pittenger said, involves training OCD patients to control the parts of their brains associated with the disorder by informing patients of their brain activity as it is monitored.

The clinic hopes to plan OCD awareness events to both help people with OCD understand what resources are available to them and to change public perception of the disorder. The clinic’s nurse manager, Suzanne Wasylink, said she believes providing the community with a general education about what OCD is may be the best way to help the change the stigma surrounding mental illness.

“OCD is not just what you see on a television program,” she said.

Portrayal of the disorder and other mental illnesses in popular culture often show it to be either dangerous or quirky, said clinic research assistant Mac Kelly. This portrayal, he added, proves problematic because it either unjustly vilifies people with OCD or trivializes their condition.

The clinic was founded as a treatment center in the 1980s by physicians Wayne Goodman and Dennis Charney. The research center was responsible for the first clinical trials of both SSRIs and Neuroleptics, the medications most commonly used to treat OCD.

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