May 8, 2008 (Washington) -- A high-tech procedure that delivers radiation deep within the brain relieved symptoms in half of patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder who got no help from medication or talk therapy, a small study shows.
The procedure uses a gamma knife to target brain circuits that work overtime in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), says Antonio Lopes, MD, PhD, of the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil.
"In people with OCD, the network of areas that communicate is always working, working, working. Medication and behavioral therapy can lower the activity of this brain circuitry. But some people don't respond, and we use the gamma knife to try to cut the connection," Lopes tells WebMD.
Not really a knife at all, the gamma knife is a machine that emits powerful, highly focused gamma radiation beams. This helps the doctors target a specific area of the brain while sparing healthy surrounding tissue. It's used to treat people with brain tumors, Parkinson's disease, and other neurological disorders.
Gamma Knife Relieves OCD Symptoms
At the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, Lopes presented early results of a study that pits the gamma knife against a sham procedure in 48 patients.
Two years after undergoing the procedure, two of four patients continue to have significant relief from symptoms, he says. Their memory has improved. And they are better able to pay attention to tasks at hand.
In contrast, there has been no improvement among patients who got the sham procedure.
However, one patient suffered a manic episode about three months after the procedure, which was followed by a bout of hallucinations and delusions a few months after that.
"There are some complications, so this is not for everyone," Lopes says. "This is for people who fail to respond to other treatments."
But for such patients, the procedure can mean the difference between being homebound and functioning "moderately well," says David Baron, DO, professor and chairman of psychiatry at Temple University in Philadelphia.
"These are patients who have failed every single drug and are essentially nonfunctioning, so even a little improvement is a big deal," he says.
Baron tells WebMD that in the U.S., "surgery [for OCD] is an old idea that is coming back because of the gamma knife. It allows you to be much more selective and precise with less adverse effects."