Real-Time Feedback from Brain Scans Shows Potential as Anxiety & OCD Therapy

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Brain & Behavior Research Foundation Grantee Christopher J. Pittenger, M.D., Ph.D., Expert on Anxiety and OCD
Dr. Christopher Pittenger

In a first-of-its-kind anxiety study, Brain & Behavior Research Foundation Grantee Christopher J. Pittenger, M.D., Ph.D. and his Yale University colleagues found that providing patients with real-time information obtained from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) assisted patients in learning to control and lower anxiety. Most people experience some temporary feelings of anxiety at points in life and anxiety is a common symptom of various mental illnesses.

Dr. Pittenger and team focused on obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a form of anxiety that can greatly diminish quality of life. Common obsessions for patients with severe OCD that can become disruptive include concerns about being harmed, exposure to germs and contracting an illness (also known as “contamination anxiety”).   

The research included 20 participants who had high levels of contamination obsessions and washing compulsions but were not currently taking medication to treat their conditions. During four brain scan sessions over the course of three weeks each participant (with the exception of a control group) was presented with new neutral and “contamination-related” images along with cues indicating how to modulate activity in their orbitofrontal cortex, an area of hyperactivity in many patients with OCD. After the first session, a clinical psychologist helped participants to develop strategies for altering their brain activity. Researchers found that the neurofeedback program enabled patients to learn to modulate activity in the part of the brain where anxiety is regulated. Positive changes in brain connectivity and reduced anxiety lasted several days.

Their findings, published April 30, 2013 in Nature Translational Psychiatry, suggest that real-time feedback has potential as a new therapy for anxiety and that it enhanced control over anxiety by reorganizing brain networks associated with the condition.

Dr. Pittenger serves as Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Child Study Center and of Psychology; Director, Yale OCD Research Clinic; and Associate Director, Neuroscience Research Training Program at Yale University. He received a NARSAD Young Investigator Grant from the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation in 2009.

Read the study announcement by Yale University

Read the study in Translational Psychiatry

Learn more about Dr. Pittenger

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Please note that researchers cannot give specific recommendations or advice about treatment; diagnosis and treatment are complex and highly individualized processes that require comprehensive face-to- face assessment. Please visit our "Ask an Expert" section to see a list of Q & A with NARSAD Grantees.
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