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Deep Brain Therapy Called ‘Promising’ for Severe OCD

Although obsessive-compulsive disorder can often be controlled with behavioral therapy and medications, there are instances when conventional therapies are not effective.

In these cases, a new thread – or rather a wire – of hope exists.

By inserting a thin electrode deep into the brain, doctors can precisely deliver an electrical current to a cord of the brain’s wiring and soften the severity of the symptoms. “Deep brain stimulation” therapy for OCD won Food and Drug Administration approval in 2009 for extreme cases under its humanitarian device exemption.

On Feb. 18 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Benjamin Greenberg, M.D., a psychiatrist at Brown University and at Butler Hospital, discussed the longest-term results so far of the technique he has helped pioneer during the last decade.

“These techniques are promising but must be used with an abundance of caution,” said Greenberg.

“This is reserved for the small proportion of people who are severely disabled and have not benefitted anywhere near adequately from very aggressive use of conventional treatments,” he said. Just over 50 patients have had DBS for OCD in the United States since the work began in 2000.

The procedure involves surgically placing electrodes just over a millimeter thick into the brain’s ventral capsule and nearby ventral striatum, which contain fibers carrying signals between the thalamus, parts of prefrontal cortex, and other nodes in a network thought important in OCD and related neuropsychiatric illnesses.

While DBS’s mechanism of action remains unknown, Greenberg said, he and collaborators from many disciplines are making progress in understanding the anatomy, physiology, and behavioral changes underpinning DBS for OCD.

Although OCD affects about 1 percent of the adult population in a given year, only a small subset of patients might be eligible for DBS.

To qualify, they must have very severe and chronically disabling illness despite at least five years of aggressive treatment by experts. Intractable, sometimes also called “malignant” OCD profoundly degrades a person’s quality of life.

The combination of intrusive, highly distressing obsessive thoughts, powerful compulsive urges, and, commonly, avoidance of situations that would trigger those symptoms leaves no time for anything else.

Patients stay up late at night and get up before dawn to do their daily “work” of compulsive behaviors, which they know is senseless but can’t stop. Many are housebound. What they hope to gain from any treatment, including surgery, is simply a little more time to live.

The FDA’s humanitarian device exemption is meant to allow the use of a promising technology in patient populations that are so small (less than 4,000 patients yearly) that the manufacturer might not otherwise recoup the development cost if it had to run extensive trials.

In a recent paper, some researchers have questioned whether granting the exemption for DBS for OCD was appropriate because the potential patient population was too large.

But Greenberg said he disagrees. He noted that only about 15 patients nationally have received DBS in each of the last two years despite extensive outreach to clinicians for his current National Institute of Mental Health-funded DBS clinical trial, and the separate humanitarian device exemption approval.

“In the real world, the group of patients meeting appropriate selection criteria is truly small,” he said.

Taking the edge off

In 2008, Greenberg and colleagues at three other test sites — Leuven, Belgium; The Cleveland Clinic; and University of Florida — and at Medtronic, the device company that makes the electrodes, published results in the journal Molecular Psychiatry from 26 severely afflicted patients who had been carrying the implant for as long as three years.

Using the Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale as their main benchmark, they found that 73 percent of patients showed at least a 25 percent reduction in their score.

The newest results, presented in Greenberg’s AAAS talk, show that the patients who improve initially and continue to receive stimulation generally remain improved for eight or more years of follow-up.

DBS might be righting an imbalance in patients between avoiding situations and goal-directed activity, or it might be that DBS bolsters an OCD sufferer’s ability to learn that feared situations are safe.

Both these changes could help severely afflicted and otherwise treatment-intractable patients better endure the difficulties presented by their illness and the work of undergoing conventional behavior therapy, which Greenberg noted is generally the treatment of choice for OCD.

“What DBS really does is make you into an average OCD patient,” Greenberg said.

But the difference between being an extreme OCD patient and an average one, Greenberg said, is the difference between being nearly unable to function in society and being able to integrate into more a normal life. Even after the surgery, that’s still a challenge for severe OCD patients.

The onset of the disease is usually in the preteen years, so even when their symptoms improve, patients may still face the problem of catching up in education and socialization.

There are other challenges, too. Patients must either undergo repeated surgeries to replace batteries or continuously maintain a rechargeable battery pack. Especially in the early days of this research when higher levels of current were used, some patients suffered side effects including excessive behavioral activation, or hypomania.

When the stimulation stopped, whether due to battery depletion, a broken stimulating wire, or device shutoff from a metal detector, return of pre-DBS depression, anxiety, and OCD symptoms occurred. (That symptoms return when DBS is interrupted and neither patients nor their study doctors know that stimulation has stopped is good evidence that symptom improvements are in fact due to DBS, Greenberg noted.)

Greenberg said that psychiatrists using the technique need to keep a close eye on patients, who should continue receiving ongoing therapy and support after the procedure. Greenberg’s treatment center at Butler Hospital includes a full-time clinical nurse who is available around the clock and other psychiatrists who can be called upon as needed.

In all, Greenberg said, the potential complications are very similar to those observed among the tens of thousands of patients who have undergone DBS treatment for Parkinson’s disease. He and colleagues have observed no clinically important new kinds of side effects not already seen in such movement disorder patients.

Greenberg also noted that OCD patients selected for this study have an excellent understanding of the risks, burdens, and potential benefits of DBS.

“They clearly know exactly what they’re signing up for,” he said. It was not unusual for patients to have read his scientific papers on DBS, he added, and all have scored perfectly on a test of comprehension of study details after informed consent.

“This was no surprise, really, but it highlights the fact that these OCD sufferers are no more vulnerable to misunderstanding when confronted by a complex study design than anybody else,” Greenberg said. “In fact, they might actually be better at this than other patient groups.”

Source: Brown University

Deep Brain Therapy Called ‘Promising’ for Severe OCD

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Deep Brain Therapy Called ‘Promising’ for Severe OCD. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 21 Feb 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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