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OCD symptoms could be reduced with 'brain-training' app, study says

By
Allen Cone
A study found people with obsessive compulsive disorder could manage their symptoms, including excessive handwashing and contamination fears, by using a brain training app. Photo by offthelefteye/pixabay
A study found people with obsessive compulsive disorder could manage their symptoms, including excessive handwashing and contamination fears, by using a "brain training" app. Photo by offthelefteye/pixabay

Oct. 23 (UPI) -- People with obsessive compulsive disorder could manage their symptoms, including excessive handwashing and contamination fears, by using a "brain training" app, according to its developers.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge in Britain, who tested the smartphone app on people without the disorder but had strong contamination fears, found one week of training can lead to significant improvements of OCD symptoms. The findings were published Tuesday in Scientific Reports.

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"This technology will allow people to gain help at any time within the environment where they live or work, rather than having to wait for appointments," Dr. Barbara Sahakian from Cambridge's Department of Psychiatry said in a press release. "The use of smartphone videos allows the treatment to be personalized to the individual."

The researchers said they used healthy volunteers rather than OCD patients to ensure that the intervention did not potentially worsen symptoms.

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"These results, while very exciting and encouraging, require further research examining the use of these smartphone interventions in people with a diagnosis of OCD," Sahakian said.

The World Health Organization has listed OCD as one of the top 20 causes of illness-related disability for individuals between 15 and 44 years of age. About 1 in 40 adults and 1 in 100 children in the United States have OCD, according to BeyondOCD.org.

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Aside from serious impacts on the lives of people with OCD, including mental health, relationships and the ability to hold down a job, excessive washing can be harmful physically because of the high use of surface cleansers or even bleach to clean hands.

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Previous research has shown that severe contamination fears and excessive washing behavior affects 46 percent of OCD patients.

A combination of medications such as Prozac, as well as talk therapy, are often prescribed. With the therapy, OCD patients are instructed to touch contaminated surfaces, such as a toilet, but to refrain from then washing their hands.

As many as 40 percent of patients fail to show a good response to either treatment, the researchers noted. And some people are afraid to undergo the therapy.

Cambridge researchers developed the new treatment through a smartphone app that involves patients watching video of themselves washing their hands or touching fake contaminated surfaces.

The study included 93 healthy people between 18 and 65 who indicated strong contamination fears as measured by high scores on the Padua Inventory Contamination Fear Subscale.

The three groups watched video of themselves on their smartphones -- of washing their hands or touching fake contaminated surfaces, as well as a control video of making neutral hand movements.

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After one week of viewing the videos four times a day, participants from the non-control groups, improved in terms of reductions in OCD symptoms and showed greater cognitive flexibility. Their Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale scores improved by around 21 percent, researchers report.

All participants completed the one week intervention, watching the videos a mean 25 out of 28 times.

"Participants told us that the smartphone washing app allowed them to easily engage in their daily activities," said Dr. Baland Jalal, a researcher in Cambridge's Department of Psychiatry. "For example, one participant said 'if I am commuting on the bus and touch something contaminated and can't wash my hands for the next two hours, the app would be a sufficient substitute.'"

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