Electrodes were placed on the hands of people both with and without the condition and mild electric shocks administered if they provided the incorrect response to images presented to them: one picture correlated to their left hand and the other their right, and they had to tap a panel with the corresponding foot.
After a while, the electrode was removed from one hand. Although participants were aware that they no longer needed to tap the matching foot to avoid a shock, those with OCD continued to do so. The explanations each of them gave later as to why they had carried on tapping were always along the lines of 'Just in case' and 'Because it seemed better to.' A clear parallel, therefore, with the 'reasoning' behind compulsions.
Scans conducted during this experiment showed that, in those with the disorder, there was a higher level of activity in the region of the brain known as the basal ganglia. In this area, messages are sent backwards and forwards in a series of 'closed loops' and the hyperactivity noted in some of these is what makes it hard for sufferers to filter out certain thoughts.
|Image courtesy of renjith krishnan/|
We met a Dutch woman, Nanda, who was housebound by her obsessions and compulsions, even after 14 years of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), which is the recognised treatment for the condition. Such extreme cases, where all else has failed, are candidates for DBS in the Netherlands - the procedure is not available in the UK - where it has apparently brought relief to 60% of the 50 patients treated, with some going into complete remission.
This procedure involves implanting an electrode in the brain, which is hooked up to a battery pack stitched into the patient's chest. The pack allows the electrode to be 'tuned' to reduce the hyperactivity in the basal ganglia. Nanda felt an immediate reduction in her anxiety levels, although, at the close of the documentary, fine-tuning was still required to address her symptoms completely.
While her doctor hopes that this treatment could assist with other mental health conditions, at present the electrical stimulation affects a relatively large area of the brain and work is ongoing to find a way to target specific neurons.
Expert feedback to the show, on social media, indicated a high level of scepticism as to the efficacy of this very invasive, and potentially risky, treatment and commentators reiterated the fact that CBT delivers a successful outcome for most. The programme did acknowledge that the mind can change the way that the brain functions, without the need for extreme surgical intervention.
For me, the lasting image was of those never-ending brain loops. It seems some of us really are just wired differently!