September 21, 2010

OCD Gene Produces Compulsive Behavior in Mice

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Serendipitously, while examining the role of a gene named Slitrk5, researchers in the Ansary Stem Cell Institute and the Department of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College noticed that their mice displayed obsessive-compulsive-like tendencies.

Gene function is explored by “knocking out” a gene – obstructing its operation. The researchers obstructed the gene, and expected the brain and vascular systems to be affected.  They indeed noticed that mice around five months old were excessively grooming themselves.  This behavior is thought to be indicative of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Researchers are currently exploring the significance of this gene.  Through MRIs and CAT scans, researchers have seen abundant activity in the cortex and striatum of mice, which are the areas of the brain that are overactive in humans with OCD.

Dr. Francis S.Y. Lee, one of the study’s senior investigators and an assistant research professor of genetic medicine, explained that they want to understand how the gene functions at the neuron level.

Dr. Sergey V. Shmelkov, an assistant professor in the department of genetic medicine, is one of the study’s co-lead authors.  He explained that OCD always has a hereditary component, as 25 to 33 percent of all patients with a psychological disorder have some history of it in their families.

Shmelkov added, “The mice also show anxiety, which is often present in humans with OCD.” For example, when put in a slightly stressful situation, in this case, choosing between an open and a closed area of open field to find food, anxiety-ridden mice spend time exclusively in the closed area.

When the mice received Prozac – the most common medication prescribed to those with anxiety or depression and used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, some eating disorders, and panic attacks – it eliminated both the grooming and anxiety behaviors.

The outwards behavior similarities between mice and humans as well as the similar brain activities draw parallels between the two organisms.  Nevertheless, due to significant differences between the two species, examining the disorder in mice is not equivalent to examining it in humans.

While this research might not reveal the whole picture, it may lead to a new understanding of the disorder. Both departments hope to continue their collaboration to learn more. Understanding this gene may help treat OCD patients.

Original Author: Katerina Athanasiou