Reprinted with permission from the September 2004 issue of Science and Theology News.

How can the obsessive need to wash your hands hundreds of times a day be compared to the instinctual need to protect one's child?

Researchers at Yale University's Child Study Center propose that parents' fixated feelings may stem from the same parts of the brain as obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD.

Though most people are aware of new parents' behavior - with actions such as fear of allowing the child out of their sight - OCD is characterized as uncontrollable to a greater degree.

"The thoughts that anybody with obsessive compulsive disorder has are normal thoughts. It's just that they occupy so much of the person's time; it's an impairment for them," said Dr. James Leckman, director of research at Yale University Child Study Center and Neison Harris Professor of Child Psychiatry and Pediatrics.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, obsessions are disturbing thoughts or rituals and compulsions are actions done in an attempt to rid obsessions. The institute also suggests the course of the disease is variable; symptoms can increase or decrease. The American Psychiatric Association states that nearly 4 million adult Americans are afflicted by the anxiety disorder, striking men and women in about equal numbers.

Through interviews and magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, Leckman and fellow researchers tested their suggestion that the two could be interrelated as a similar type of evolutionary process.

"There might have been circumstances in our past species where, unless you were really, really scrupulous about everything being as clean as possible, that the baby wouldn't have made it," Leckman said. "On a superficial level, I think there are some similarities. If you ask new parents, for example, `Do you ever check on your baby even though you've just checked on your baby and you know everything's OK?', you know over 75 percent of the parents will say that's pretty regular in terms of how they operate."

Research started a decade ago for Leckman, and the current study began almost two years ago at Yale University Child Study Center where 30 sets of parents were selected to participate. The research begins at the time of the birth of the baby and lasts four months. All parents are given a camera and a recorder and are told to capture images and cries of their baby in order for the researchers to later test parental responses comparing their child to other children.

Two weeks after the birth, an interviewer completes questionnaires with the parents. Soon after, a MRI is performed in which parents are exposed to visual and auditory stimuli so researchers can see the parents' level of brain activity.

The parents are shown pictures of their baby, a different baby, their baby's toys and another baby's toys. They are exposed to their baby's cry, another baby's cry and filtered noise. They press buttons to indicate how good or bad they feel as the pictures and sounds play.

Through this researchers can see areas of the brain that are responding to the various stimuli, Leckman said.

In their quest to establish an evolutionary link between OCD and parental love, researchers take the opportunity with a new family to discover how the study could help parents down the road.

A MRI is repeated at three months, and researchers also analyze a videotape of the family interacting in order to determine the dynamic of the family's relationship.

At four months, a final interview is conducted to determine how the family would like to make progress as a whole. Researchers "ask them to identify areas where they think there might be some areas of disagreement between the parents and see how we might help with that problem," Leckman said.

"What would be ideal is to be able to track some of these high-risk mothers and fathers," Leckman said. He wants to see if participation in an intervention program would not only enhance the performance of parents that lack the seemingly necessary obsessive quality others possess, but if, with MRIs, "we would see, literally in the brain imaging, evidence for that increased psychological investment in the child."

Leckman and his group are continuing to analyze brain levels from OCD patients and parents of newborns in order to view a deeper biological pattern linking the two.

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