The Times October 10, 2005
Motherhood it's probably just another word for being bonkers
Science Notebook by Anjana Ahuja
YOU DONT have to be mad to be a parent, but it helps. In fact,
according to a psychiatrist at Yale University, there are
spectacular similarities between the thought processes of
first-time parents and sufferers of obsessive compulsive
disorder (OCD). Now he is speculating that OCD occurs when the
brain circuits associated with parenting are triggered in the
absence of a baby.
Professor James Leckman started researching OCD in the 1980s.
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 . . .
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 ones
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.
# BARE-FACED lying takes some nerve. And so scientists have
proved. The brains of pathological liars are structurally
different from the brains of honest folk, and show more wiring.
Deceit takes more mental effort than telling the truth, suggest
the researchers at the University of Southern California, and
this is borne out by the observation that the liars had about a
quarter more white matter in their prefrontal lobes than honest
people. The increased wiring imparts the enhanced cognitive and
linguistic skills required to pull off a convincing con.
The liars also had less grey matter than the others this is
the stuff that whirrs into action when people are asked to make
moral decisions. Professor Adrian Raine, co-author of the paper
in British Journal of Psychiatry, summarises: Theyve got the
equipment to lie, and they dont have the disinhibition that the
rest of us have in telling the big whoppers.
# WANT TO lose weight? Acquiring a dog can lose you more weight
in a year than most diet plans. Volunteers who walked dogs at
least three times a week for a year shed 14lb. After the
University of Missouri-Columbia study ended, several volunteers
decided to get pets themselves or become walkers for dog
shelters. Now Rebecca Johnson, who led the study, plans to study
whether people would get more out of gym visits if they took
along pets as support companions. Butch doing bench presses?
Ian Pitchford PhD CBiol MIBiol