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Biofeedback from the zoo

Almost three percent of all Americans suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). But when do you cross the line between a neurotic compulsion to check your email every five minutes and mental illness?

According to new Tel Aviv University research, the best way to understand and effectively treat OCD is to look at ourselves as though we're animals in a zoo. "We've developed a program that allows us to videotape people that suffer from overt compulsions and compare their behavior to classic displays of neurotic or healthy behavior from the animal kingdom, observed in the wild or in captivity," says Prof. David Eilam from the Department of Zoology at Tel Aviv University.

Studying bears, gazelles, and rats, among other animals, the Tel Aviv University scientists have developed a model to identify and understand abnormal behavior. The model is, in effect, a reference database that gives mental health practitioners a way to classify different behaviors when they observe a patient at the clinic or on video.

A Descriptive Tool Becomes a Treatment Tool

Watching animals in the wild, and then in captivity at Tel Aviv University's Research Zoo, Prof. Eilam noticed that a uniform repetition of motor patterns occurs in wild animals in captivity. He then understood that the rituals performed by animals in captivity could give clues about OCD and unnecessary actions, such as excessive hand washing, performed by humans. "In the wild, animals perform automated routines, not rituals," says Prof. Eilam. "But in captivity, the animals' attention focus is on perseverating rituals, with an explicit emphasis on performance - just like they had OCD."

His research, done in collaboration with Prof. Haggai Hermesh, a psychiatrist from the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University and Rama Zor, a Ph.D. student, is now being used as a type of behavioral therapy and as a tool for assessing the efficacy of anti-compulsive treatments. It's the first to connect animal behavior to human OCD, and was recently presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, one of the most important meetings of neuroscientists and psychiatrists in the world.

Seeing Is Believing

"Patients who previously described their rituals down to the very smallest details can break down crying when they watch their own behavior on video," he says. "It's striking to see: They can't believe how sick they really are, once they notice the large gap between what they've described to us and what they're observing on the screen."

Using video to provide a form of biofeedback, Prof. Eilam's new therapy may motivate patients to correct their compulsive actions. Given the availability and affordability of video cameras, or web cams, Prof. Eilam expects this mode of behavioral therapy to attract interest in the U.S. "OCD is a very severe mental disorder, but most often in America it is still being assessed by way of a simple questionnaire. Instead, we've been looking at people the same way we look at animals. Animals can't speak or complete a questionnaire, so to study their behavior, we videotape them and then analyse their movements."


Contact: George Hunka
American Friends of Tel Aviv University

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