The Obsessive Compulsive Brain


If you haven't already, you've got to see this.

It is a video of Neil Hilborn's Individual Finals performance at the 2013 Rustbelt Regional Poetry Slam, and it is absolutely incredible. I shared the on my Facebook a few months back, and I just came across it again today. When I had seen it before, it made me tear up. Today, knowing that I had a Science 200 blog post to write before the end of the week, I found myself watching the video with a more scientific eye. What is it about Neil's brain that makes him have ODC?

Let's start off by defining what exactly the disorder entails. According to, OCD is "an anxiety disorder characterized by uncontrollable, unwanted thoughts and repetitive, ritualized behaviors you feel compelled to perform." Even though afflicted people are usually aware that their obsessions are irrational, they feel unable to resist them and trying to do so gives them a large deal of anxiety. They also understand that the compulsions offer nothing more than temporary relief, but they perform them anyway.

So why do their brains do this to them? How did we figure this out?

Research shows that there are two major differences between an OCD brain and a normal brain: OCD brains have extra activity in the basal ganglia and they have less white matter.

With the help of positron emission tomography scans (PET scans), scientists were able to determine where metabolic activity was occurring in the brain. As compared to a normal human brain, OCD brains showed increased activity in their frontal lobe. It makes sense that most active area on the frontal lobe was the basal ganglia, the part of the brain deals with procedural learning, routine behaviors, and action selection. This is what causes the obsessions and compulsions to become programmed.

Another type of scan called magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) allowed scientists to see that there was less white matter present in OCD brains than in normal brains. White matter is the name for the myelinated axons that serve as connections between gray matter, or neurons. Its purpose is to facilitate communication by enabling electrical signals in axons to get to the right place for translation. A lack of white matter corresponds to weakened communication signals. This explains why people with OCD exhibit a disconnect between the thoughts and actions that they deem rationale and the thoughts and actions that they actually have and do. In most cases, the neo-cortex of an OCD brain behaves just like that of a normal brain. Since the neo-cortex controls rational thought, this further explains why most people with OCD can recognize that their obsessions and compulsions are irrational.

Thanks to such groundbreaking research, we are able to create drugs and therapy techniques for individuals suffering from OCD. But these methods are not end-all, be-all cures. Since much of the OCD brain is still a mystery, scientists must continue their research in hopes of more treatments for people like Neil Hilborn.



Hi Amanda! I also watched this video when it went viral on the internet not long ago. It's crazy to learn that such a small defect in the brain can make that big of an impact on everyday life. I did a little research and found out that often people with OCD are prescribed ( anti-depressants in order to calm them down and increase serotonin levels. But medications can get much more complicated when they are diagnosed with multiple anxiety disorders. I do hope that one day there can be a complete cure for people who suffer from severe anxiety.

I watched this video several times in a row because it was so fascinating. As a non-science major, I sometimes forget to look at things with a scientific eye, but this class has already changed that. It was incredible to see how loving someone made an impact on a disorder that this man has no control over. I was intrigued by the idea of people dealing with their disorders in a relationship.

Below is the link to an article a woman wrote on her struggles with OCD in romantic relationships. It's heartbreaking to see how a small brain defect can completely control someone's life.

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