Neuropsychiatry Affects Pediatric OCD Treatment

Jim Kling

September 01, 2021

Treatment of pediatric obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) has evolved in recent years, with more attention given to some of the neuropsychiatric underpinnings of the condition and how they can affect treatment response.

At the Focus on Neuropsychiatry 2021 meeting, Jeffrey Strawn, MD, outlined some of the neuropsychiatry affecting disease and potential mechanisms to help control obsessions and behaviors, and how they may fit with some therapeutic regimens.

Strawn discussed the psychological construct of cognitive control, which can provide patients an "out" from the cycle of obsession/fear/worry and compulsion/avoidance. In the face of distress, compulsion and avoidance lead to relief, which reinforces the obsession/fear/worry; this in turn leads to more distress.

"We have an escape door for this circuit" in the form of cognitive control, said Strawn, who is an associate professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

Cognitive control is linked to insight, which can in turn increase adaptive behaviors that help the patient resist the compulsion. Patients won't eliminate distress, but they can be helped to make it more tolerable. Therapists can then help them move toward goal-directed thoughts and behaviors. Cognitive control is associated with several neural networks, but Strawn focused on two: the frontoparietal network, associated with top-down regulation; and the cingular-opercular network. Both of these are engaged during cognitive control processes, and play a role inhibitory control and error monitoring.

Strawn discussed a recent study that explored the neurofunctional basis of treatment. It compared the effects of a stress management therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in children and adults with OCD at 6 and 12 weeks. The study found similar symptom reductions in both adults and adolescents in both intervention groups.

Before initiating treatment, the researchers conducted functional MRI scans of participants while conducting an incentive flanker task, which reveals brain activity in response to cognitive control and reward processing.

A larger therapeutic response was found in the CBT group among patients who had a larger pretreatment activation within the right temporal lobe and rostral anterior cingulate cortex during cognitive control, as well as those with more activation within the medial prefrontal, orbitofrontal, lateral prefrontal, and amygdala regions during reward processing. On the other hand, within the stress management therapy group, treatment responses were better among those who had lower pretreatment activation among overlapping regions.

"There was a difference in terms of the neurofunctional predictors of treatment response. One of the key regions is the medial prefrontal cortex as well as the rostral anterior cingulate," said Strawn, at the meeting presented by MedscapeLive. MedscapeLive and this news organization are owned by the same parent company.

On the neuropharmacology side, numerous medications have been approved for OCD. Strawn highlighted some studies to illustrate general OCD treatment concepts. That included the 2004 Pediatric OCD Treatment Study, which was one of the only trials to compare placebo with an SSRI, CBT, and the combination of SSRI and CBT. It showed the best results with combination therapy, and the difference appeared early in the treatment course.

That study had aggressive dosing, which led to some issues with sertraline tolerability. Strawn showed results of a study at his institution which showed that the drug levels of pediatric patients treated with sertraline depended on CYP2C19 metabolism, which affects overall exposure and peak dose concentration. In pediatric populations, some SSRIs clear more slowly and can have high peak concentrations. SSRIs have more side effects than serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors in both anxiety disorders and OCD. A key difference between the two is that SSRI treatment is associated with greater frequency of activation, which is difficult to define, but includes restlessness and agitation and insomnia in the beginning stages of treatment.

SSRIs also lead to improvement early in the course of treatment, which was shown in a meta-analysis of nine trials. However, the same study showed that clomipramine is associated with a faster and greater magnitude of improvement, compared with SSRIs, even when the latter are dosed aggressively.

Clomipramine is a potent inhibitor of both serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake. It is recommended to monitor clomipramine levels in pediatric OCD patients, and Strawn suggested that monitoring should include both the parent drug and its primary metabolite, norclomipramine. At a given dose, there can be a great deal of variation in drug level. The clomipramine/norclomipramine ratio can provide information about the patient's metabolic state, as well as drug adherence.

Strawn noted that peak levels occur around 1-3 hours after the dose, "and we really do want at least a 12-hour trough level." EKGs should be performed at baseline and after any titration of clomipramine dose.

He also discussed pediatric OCD patients with OCD and tics. About one-third of Tourette syndrome patients experience OCD at some point. Tics often improve, whereas OCD more often persists. Tics that co-occur with OCD are associated with a lesser response to SSRI treatment, but not CBT treatment. Similarly, patients with hoarding tendencies are about one-third less likely to respond to SSRIs, CBT, or combination therapy.

Strawn discussed the concept of accommodation, in which family members cope with a patient's behavior by altering routines to minimize distress and impairment. This may take the form of facilitating rituals, providing reassurance about a patient's fears, acquiescing to demands, reducing the child's day-to-day responsibilities, or helping the child complete tasks. Such actions are well intentioned, but they undermine cognitive control, negatively reinforce symptom engagement, and are associated with functional impairment. Reassurance is the most important behavior, occurring in more than half of patients, and it's measurable. Parental involvement with rituals is also a concern. "This is associated with higher levels of child OCD severity, as well as parental psychopathology, and lower family cohesion. So oftentimes, there's a real need to incorporate a family component for the therapeutic aspect of OCD treatment in children and adolescents," said Strawn.

New developments in neurobiology and neuropsychology have changed the view of exposure. The old model emphasized the child's fear rating as an index of corrective learning. The idea was that habituation would decrease anxiety and distress from future exposures. The new model revolves around inhibitory learning theory, which focuses on the variability of distress and aims to increase tolerance of distress. Another goal is to develop new, non-threat associations.

Finally, Strawn pointed out predictors of poor outcomes in pediatric OCD, including factors such as compulsion severity, oppositional behavior, frequent handwashing, functional impairment, lack of insight, externalizing symptoms, and possibly hoarding. Problematic family characteristics include higher levels of accommodation, parental anxiety, low family cohesion, and high levels of conflict. "The last three really represent a very concerning triad of family behaviors that may necessitate specific family work in order to facilitate the recovery of the pediatric patient," Strawn said.

During the question-and-answer session after the talk, Strawn was asked whether there might be an inflammatory component to OCD, and whether pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcus (PANDAS) might be a prodromal condition. He noted that some studies have shown a relationship, but results have been mixed, with lots of heterogeneity within the studied populations. To be suspicious that a patient had OCD resulting from PANDAS would require a high threshold, including an acute onset of symptoms. "This is a situation also where I would tend to involve consultation with some other specialties, including neurology. And obviously there would be follow-up in terms of the general workup," he said.

Strawn has received research funding from Allergan, Otsuka, and Myriad Genetics. He has consulted for Myriad Genetics, and is a speaker for CMEology and the Neuroscience Education Institute.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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