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

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

Article comments

Can anyone recommend a psychiatrist or a way to find one in the Bethlehem, Easton, Allentown or Philadelphia who treats OCD & ADD in a 12 year old female?

They specialize in treating OCD and PTSD at The University of Penn in Philadelphia. The entire facility was started by Dr. Edna Foa.

Any new medication discovered for ocd?
Pls answer

Thanks for the interesting research. May I know what is meant by real-time feedback?
Best wishes

How does one go about being approved for a fMRI?? I have been to several psychologists and currently under the care of a psychiatrist. I have PCD and a long history of respiratory illness and have also had trauma to the front of my head on two different occasions. Ran into a tree at 10 years old and had a car accident at 22yrs old. Have a scar on the right side of my forehead. I am living on Zoloft and Adderall which is causing other problems. I am raising two kids, working, and trying to get through some college classes to get a better job. I feel I suffer from damage to my prefrontal cortex but can't seem to make anyone understand. "Too much on my plate" is what I'm told.

What are options for people with intrusive thoughts? I have a son who was diagnosed with severe depression, OCD thoughts and anxiety. His OCD (intrusive) thoughts and no meds have worked. He has resorted to self medicating with marijuana. It had gotten to the point where he doesn't see a future for himself and he talks about dying all the time. He is still seeing a psychiatrist for medication management and she is aware of his marijuana use. I fight for him every day of his life and don't want him to give up. He has been dealing with this since he was very young. He's losing hope fast but the thoughts are also getting worse. As he put it "the door in his brain is opening" and he can't figure out how to keep it closed.

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