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Childhood obsessive symptoms can multiply probabilities of OCD

06 March 2009

A research group led Miguel Ángel Fullana, researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona has carried out a first study that connects the obsessive-compulsive symptoms in childhood with the risk of developing an obsessive-compulsive disorder as adulthood.

One of the main conclusions of the study is that children who repeatedly show obsessions and compulsions notably increase their risk of suffering from OCD later in life.

The research used data from the Dunedin Study which has been carried out with citizens of Dunedin, New Zealand since 1973. It is one of the only places in the world where a long-term follow-up of different psychological variables has taken place from childhood to adulthood with a sample of almost one thousand people. Researchers assessed the evolution of two variables in participants at ages 11, 26 and 32: the repeated presence of obsessive ideas (e.g. recurrent and undesired thoughts to harm others) and compulsive rituals (a need to wash their hands constantly, to check up on small everyday tasks to prevent harm or repeatedly carrying out activities that seem meaningless, etc.).

Based on the analysis of these data, researchers have shown that there is a correlation between obsessions and compulsions in childhood (when study members were age 11) and the probability of suffering from an obsessive-compulsive disorder as an adult (observed at ages 26 and 32 among participants). More specifically, the girls and boys in the study who showed symptoms of obsessive or compulsive behaviour at 11 - a total of 8 per cent of the population studied - were six times more likely to suffer from an obsessive-compulsive disorder in adulthood.

'Obsessions and compulsions are frequent amongst children, but they are associated with high interference (i.e,, a diagnosis of OCD) only in a few cases. Adult OCD affects 1-2 % of the general population. What we have shown for the first time is that having symptoms in childhood increases the risk of having the disorder in adulthood. Our results suggest that early recognition and treatment of obsessions and compulsions in the community may potentially reduce distress and interference from these symptoms and perhaps reduce risk for developing full-blown OCD'

According to the research authors these results can be easily applied to other populations as the characteristics and incidences in the New Zealand sample are similar to other parts of the world.

The study entitled “Obsessions and Compulsions in the Community:Prevalence, Interference, Help-Seeking, Developmental Stability, and Co-Occurring Psychiatric Conditions   “ has been published in the March issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry and was carried out with the participation of researchers from King's College London; Duke University, Durham, USA; University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia; and the University of Otago, New Zealand.

Please refer to the journal for a copy of the whole paper.

Authors were:  Miguel A. Fullana, Ph.D., David Mataix-Cols, Ph.D., Avshalom Caspi, Ph.D., Honalee Harrington, B.A., Jessica R. Grisham, Ph.D., Terrie E. Moffitt, Ph.D., Richie Poulton, Ph.D

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