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Ask the Experts


Can OCD affect cognition?

Answered by: Michael McKee

Sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and those that interact with them are aware that the disorder seems to interfere with thought processes, also know as cognition.

Depending on the severity of the illness, people with OCD may have significant difficulty paying attention to tasks assigned them at work or to everyday social conversation because of their preoccupation with intrusive obsessional thoughts and urges to engage in compulsive behaviors. Anxiety accompanies an obsession and a ritual behavior (or a ritual thought) reduces the anxiety.

The individual often may pause to complete this cycle before resuming their work or conversation. People with OCD often develop “short cuts” to get themselves through these moments, and then complete the ritual more fully later.

Interference with cognition due to depression occurring along with OCD may contribute to poor performance. Medications taken for the disorder may contribute to slowing.

Much is still not known about how OCD and the other factors influence brain function. Studies in which cognitive performance was measured using objective tests have had mixed results. The tests measure cognitive function relevant to work, such as capacity to sustain attention over time and decision-making, but research has shown no difference in performance between people with and without OCD.

As might be expected, other studies have found deficits in speed of information processing and impaired organizational strategies.

In sum, it is clear that OCD affects cognition but the work that will help fill in the many gaps in our knowledge of how OCD influences brain function is far from complete.