Got OCD? Ask the animals

Almost three percent of all Americans suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). But when do you cross the line between a neurotic compulsion to check your email every five minutes and mental illness? Ask the animals.

According to new Tel Aviv University research, the best way to understand and effectively treat OCD is to look at ourselves as though we’re animals in a zoo. “We’ve developed a program that allows us to videotape people that suffer from overt compulsions and compare their behavior to classic displays of neurotic or healthy behavior from the animal kingdom, observed in the wild or in captivity,” says Prof. David Eilam from the Department of Zoology at Tel Aviv University.

Studying bears, gazelles, and rats, among other animals, the Tel Aviv University scientists have developed a model to identify and understand abnormal behavior. The model is, in effect, a reference database that gives mental health practitioners a way to classify different behaviors when they observe a patient at the clinic or on video.

A Descriptive Tool Becomes a Treatment Tool

Watching animals in the wild, and then in captivity at Tel Aviv University’s Research Zoo, Prof. Eilam noticed that a uniform repetition of motor patterns occurs in wild animals in captivity. He then understood that the rituals performed by animals in captivity could give clues about OCD and unnecessary actions, such as excessive hand washing, performed by humans. “In the wild, animals perform automated routines, not rituals,” says Prof. Eilam. “But in captivity, the animals’ attention focus is on perseverating rituals, with an explicit emphasis on performance ? just like they had OCD.”

His research, done in collaboration with Prof. Haggai Hermesh, a psychiatrist from the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University and Rama Zor, a Ph.D. student, is now being used as a type of behavioral therapy and as a tool for assessing the efficacy of anti-compulsive treatments. It’s the first to connect animal behavior to human OCD, and was recently presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, one of the most important meetings of neuroscientists and psychiatrists in the world.

Seeing Is Believing

“Patients who previously described their rituals down to the very smallest details can break down crying when they watch their own behavior on video, “he says. “It’s striking to see: They can’t believe how sick they really are, once they notice the large gap between what they’ve described to us and what they’re observing on the screen.”

Using video to provide a form of biofeedback, Prof. Eilam’s new therapy may motivate patients to correct their compulsive actions. Given the availability and affordability of video cameras, or web cams, Prof. Eilam expects this mode of behavioral therapy to attract interest in the U.S. “OCD is a very severe mental disorder, but most often in America it is still being assessed by way of a simple questionnaire. Instead, we’ve been looking at people the same way we look at animals. Animals can’t speak or complete a questionnaire, so to study their behavior, we videotape them and then analyse their movements.”

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.

3 thoughts on “Got OCD? Ask the animals”

  1. This article is extremely interesting. I completely agree that so much can be learned about human behavior by studying nature and animals because humans are indeed part of the natural world. Humans can often disguise their illnesses for example, OCD, as stated in the article where the people have described their OCD in detail, or completed questionnaires, but the truth about their illness comes out in their actions. This is an obvious outcome because our actions often display our primal instincts. I agree with u14005868 EADP in the fact that humans often find the slightest of changes very difficult to handle because we are so use to our structured, ordered world that society has created. As stated in the article, animals cannot speak or write down how they feel or what they think of their actions, they can only behave in their animalistic way and therefore by studying humans’ behavior rather than doing research on what people say, the true nature of the mental disorder can be studied. Are there any other mental disorders that can be studied through animals?

  2. Humans are animals, no matter how highly we try to place ourselves above the natural world. The similarity of animal behaviour to human behaviour with regards to OCD is proof of this. Society has “captured” humans, as humans have captured animals. I am of the opinion that these confined ways of living have a lot do with disorders such as OCD. A ritual or orderly way of carrying out their days is a comforting way to live in such conditions. For example, I have seen with horses that a change in their daily routine can have drastic effects on these animals’ stress levels. I think it is much the same for humans, and some are effected by it more than others. People can become so used to having their houses organized in such a way, for example, that it psychologically affects them when something is out of place. Have you ever noticed, that after cleaning out a rat’s cage, the animal furiously runs around it’s enclosure to investigate the changes made to it’s home. The connection between animal behaviour and human behaviour is strongly evident here (especially for those who suffer from OCD). I have always thought that much can be learned about the human mind and behaviour through studying animals, and in modern research it is becoming evident that animals and humans are more connected than most have thought.

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