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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 April 2006, 13:53 GMT 14:53 UK
Mistakes 'aid OCD understanding'
Handwashing
Handwashing is a common behaviour in people with OCD
Everyone is familiar with the sinking feeling you get after deleting a computer file by mistake or leaving the house without your keys.

But such events also cause their own unique reactions in the brain.

US scientists writing in the Journal of Neuroscience found one area becomes more active after "costly" mistakes.

They say it may help explain obsessive compulsive disorder, where minor events appear to be enough to trigger an over-reaction in the same area.

An exaggerated perception of error is likely to be linked to the untoward anxiety about errors or failures
Dr Heather Sequeira, St George's Hospital,

In the study, the brains of 12 healthy adults were examined using a functional MRI (fMRI) scanner while they were undertook 360 computer tests, such as spotting the odd one out or picking pairs of letters.

Succeeding at some carried a small financial reward, while failing at others incurred penalties. Others carried no reward or penalty.

People were told they had a $10 (5.70) "credit" to begin, and that they would receive real cash depending on their balance at the end.

The response to a mistake that cost them money was seen to be greater than the response to other mistakes and involved a part of the brain called the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC).

That part of the brain did not show the same level of activity when the mistake did not carry a penalty, or had a neutral consequence.

The researchers had already found in previous research that the rACC area did become more active when there was no cost in people with OCD.

Therapy

OCD is often characterised by an untoward anxiety or fear about errors or failures in certain aspects of everyday life, with repetitive patterns of behaviour to ward off or prevent such events.

Stephan Taylor, who led the US research, said: "It's very interesting to us that the same part of the brain that responded in our OCD study on regular, no-cost errors also responded in healthy individuals when we made the error count more."

"It appears to us so far that OCD patients may have a hyperactive response to making errors, with increased worry and concern about having done something wrong," he says.

"We hope that this kind of research will help us get a handle on this condition and see which normal brain circuits have gone awry in people with OCD.

The next step is to study OCD patients using the same test as was used in healthy participants, and to see if "talking therapies" have any effect.

Stress link

Dr Heather Sequeira, a psychologist at St George's Hospital, London, said: "This is a very intriguing piece of research.

"In clinical practice we often find that OCD develops following a significant life event or increase in stress - particularly when it is associated with an increase in responsibility for the person, such as being promoted or having a baby.

"In a person who is susceptible to OCD, conceivably because of the rACC differences described by these researchers, these periods of increased stress may well be the very times when ' everyday mistakes' are perceived as carrying a greater penalty.

"An exaggerated perception of error is likely to be linked to the untoward anxiety about errors or failures and the associated compulsive checking, washing and other repetitive responses associated with OCD."


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