Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Parenting: A Normal, Adaptive Version of OCD   posted by TangoMan @ 10/12/2005 08:56:00 PM

You don't have to be mad to be a parent, but it helps. This is certainly not an original thought but it's a truism nonetheless. Recent research is aiming to expand our insight into how parental behavior changes when children are introduced into their lives. Dr. James Leckman of the Yale University School of Medicine offers a tantalizing glimpse of his recent research into Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder:

His plan was to hunt down the neurotransmitter that might hold the key to OCD, in the same way that the neurotransmitter serotonin plays a role in depression. He did chemical analyses of the cerebrospinal fluid from OCD sufferers and found . . . nothing.

Rather than leave the samples languishing in the freezer, Leckman sent them off to another researcher to check for less well-known chemicals. “The guy who examined them was amazed by the levels of oxytocin,” Leckman says. Oxytocin is the hormone that tightens the parent-child bond. Knock out the oxytocin gene in female mice, and they lose the ability to nurse their young. Inject oxytocin into animals, and they show grooming behaviour and an increased faithfulness to one mate.

“The question was,” Leckman says, “what did all the behaviours associated with oxytocin, such as pair-bonding, have to do with OCD? Then I remembered how I behaved when my wife was pregnant with our first child. Every time she got a fever or a cold, I had these intrusive thoughts about harm coming to the baby. I remember my wife cleaning all the time, even moving the refrigerator. And even though I was a really busy medic, I found the time to build a cradle from scratch. I just came up with the idea that [parenting] is a normal, adaptive version of OCD.”

Leckman suggests that, given the high rates of infant mortality during human evolution, parents whose brains contained the neurocircuitry of paranoia would be most successful at keeping their offspring alive. When these circuits are switched on at the wrong time, he theorises, the obsessive behaviours become problematic and result in OCD. In particular, two variants of OCD — compulsive checking to ensure no harm comes to one’s family and an inordinate desire for cleanliness — are familiar to new parents.

Most recently, Leckman has questioned expectant parents and new parents on their feelings about their babies, using a method similar to that employed to diagnose OCD. He has found that just before and just after the birth the feelings and fears of both mothers and fathers are strikingly reminiscent of those voiced by OCD sufferers. He is keeping the exact results under wraps, and is preparing a paper for publication. Interestingly, Donald Winnicott, the late English psychoanalyst, commented in 1956 that, in order to relate to their infants, mothers develop a heightened sensitivity that is “almost an illness”.