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Queenslanders needed for OCD treatment clinical trial

QIMR Berghofer researchers are calling for south-east Queenslanders who have been diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) to join a clinical trial of a new brain stimulation treatment.

The Brisbane-based clinical trial was disrupted earlier this year due to COVID-19-related restrictions, but the researchers now have approval to restart the important project.

OCD affects almost one in 20 people and is characterised by distressing obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours, often to do with cleaning, counting or checking. It is linked to depression and anxiety disorders and is associated with high rates of suicide.

The head of QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute’s Clinical Brain Networks team, Dr Luca Cocchi, said the researchers were trialling Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to target parts of the brain that support OCD symptoms.

“TMS is a non-invasive procedure that delivers repetitive magnetic pulses to the brain to stimulate nerve cells and adjust brain activity. It has been used successfully to treat depression, but the efficacy of targeted stimulation for OCD symptoms remains to be trialled,” Dr Cocchi said.

“One of its strengths is that it has the potential of being customised to apply stimulation to the particular neural pathways that are involved in the symptoms. This personalised treatment is essential because no two people have precisely the same brain anatomy.

“Obsessive-compulsive disorder can be debilitating, with many patients withdrawing from social interactions because they feel intense shame about their compulsive behaviours.

“The symptoms are currently managed with a combination of psychological counselling and medication, but more than 40 per cent of patients continue to experience severe symptoms so new treatments are needed to help those living with the disorder.”

Study participants first undergo a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan, which the researchers use to identify the areas of the brain that would benefit from stimulation.

Participants then attend clinics at QIMR Berghofer in Brisbane where they receive the TMS treatment for about 20 minutes via stimulation to the scalp. The treatment targets the areas of the brain identified in the MRI and is given five days a week over a month.

“We hope this new, painless way of treating symptoms of OCD could complement the existing treatments and help individuals lead healthier and happier lives,” Dr Cocchi said.

“The quality of life reported by people living with OCD is one of the lowest among all disorders, so identifying a non-invasive and safe way to better manage their symptoms would be exciting and welcome news.”

OCD is a chronic disease which usually presents in late adolescence or adulthood and has periods of remission and relapse. The disorder affects about two per cent of Australians.

The trial is being funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia and philanthropic donations.