Someday, the show Monk might not make any sense to us.
Brain scientists at Duke University tested lab mice who were bred with a low level of a brain receptor and found that they would excessively groom themselves. The gene, known as Sapap3, is what creates the connection between brain cells.
The scientists studied a specific region in the brain of mice that controls compulsive behavior, noticing when chemicals seemed to trigger anxious behavior.
It's a remarkable discovery because, during the testing process, the researchers were able to identify the exact chemical, called mGluR5, that encouraged the OCD-like behavior. When the researchers used a chemical to deactivate mGluR5, the OCD behavior subsided almost immediately.
Even though the testing is an early finding in mice only, there are some obvious implications for people, about what is happening in the brain when someone obsessively washes their hands, needs to have a shirt collar buttoned perfectly, or has to arrange food on their plate in a certain way before they can eat. It could also lead to additional testing on humans to deactivate mGluR5, which is thought to play a role in Parkinson's disease.
OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, has been diagnosed in about 3.3 million people and involves anxious, obsessive thoughts. Monk, the popular USA Network show that ran from 2002 to 2009, was one of the first major cultural touchstones that helped explain the disease to a wide audience, even if it was mostly a show about a former detective who was obsessively analytical and solved crimes.
There's no known cure for OCD, although with training and psychological help, people who suffer from the illness can lead normal lives and adjust to everyday pressures. One treatment involves increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain.
What's interesting about the Duke study is that it is the first time researchers have suggested there could be a treatment for OCD that has a direct impact on a specific chemical and could therefore lead to a remedy. (In neuroscience, these types of neurological disorders are usually considered incurable.)
It's good timing to address the disease, because--in part thanks to Monk--society has started to see the abnormal behavior as a bit of a recurring joke. We tell people at work they have OCD in an offhand way without realizing there are levels of OCD behavior, some of them quite serious. For example, there's a form of OCD that involves repeating thought patterns about hurting other people.
There's a misconception as well that you can have a slight or temporary case of OCD. It's the same view that suggests you can have a slight cold--the truth is you either have a cold or you don't. This is typically the result of not understanding the science involved. Some of us can be overly analytical or detail-oriented but do not actually have obsessive behaviors.
What's the difference? Those who suffer from OCD tend to need medical or psychological help to lead a normal life. It's a disease that infringes on your job and your family life. The good news--there may be some relief in sight.