Brain Inflammation Elevated in People With OCD

June 29, 2017
Jeffrey Meyer

Brain inflammation is 32% higher, on average, in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), compared with people without the disorder, according to results from a new brain imaging study published online in JAMA Psychiatry.

“Our research showed a strong relationship between brain inflammation and OCD, particularly in the parts of the brain known to function differently in OCD,” said study senior author Jeffrey Meyer, MD, PhD, head of the neuroimaging program in mood and anxiety at the Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Ontario, Canada. “This finding represents one of the biggest breakthroughs in understanding the biology of OCD, and may lead to the development of new treatments.”

The study included 40 participants: 20 people with OCD and 20 people without the condition. Researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) to identify brain inflammation. A chemical dye measured activity of microglia, immune cells that are active in inflammation, in 6 brain areas believed to play a role in OCD.

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In addition to identifying significantly elevated brain inflammation in participants with OCD compared to people without, the study also found greater inflammation in some patients with OCD compared with others who also had the disorder.

Researchers believe the findings may help provide a new avenue for treating people with OCD. Current medications are not effective in nearly a third of patients.

“Medications developed to target brain inflammation in other disorders could be useful in treating OCD,” Dr. Meyer said. “Work needs to be done to uncover the specific factors that contribute to brain inflammation, but finding a way to reduce inflammation's harmful effects and increase its helpful effects could enable us to develop a new treatment much more quickly.”

—Jolynn Tumolo


Attwells S, Setiawan E, Wilson AA, et al. Inflammation in the neurocircuitry of obsessive-compulsive disorder. JAMA Psychiatry. 2017 June 21;[Epub ahead of print].

CAMH researchers discover brain inflammation in people with OCD [press release]. Toronto, Canada: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health; June 21, 2017.