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Studying Compulsive Behavior In Dogs May Help Improve OCD Treatments For People

Feb 29, 2016 12:10 PM EST

Similar to humans who have obsessive compulsive disorder, dogs exhibit compulsive behaviors, in which they might repetitively spin around, chase their tail, bark, chew, or suck on a toy or a part of their body for an excessive amount of time. In the latest study from Tufts University, researchers identified genetic pathways that increase the severity of canine compulsive disorders in Doberman pinschers. This discovery may lead to the development of improved treatments and therapies for obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in people. 

"Dogs naturally suffer complex diseases, including mental disorders that are similar to those in humans. Among those is canine compulsive disorder (CCD), the counterpart to human obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)," Nicholas Dodman, first author of the study, said in a news release

An estimated one to three percent of people have OCD. In fact, it is one of the world's most common neuropsychiatric disorders and is among the 20 most disabling diseases. Generally, OCD is characterized by distressing thoughts and time-consuming, repetitive behaviors. Unlike OCD in humans, however, obsessive thoughts don't apply to dogs, as we can't know what they are thinking.

Current OCD treatments are only effective in about half of all human patients. But since CCD shares many behavioral hallmarks, pharmacological responsiveness, and brain structural homology with human OCD, researchers suggest it is an important animal model.

After sequencing the entire genomes of 70 Doberman pinschers, researchers identified two loci on the animals' chromosomes that are believed to exacerbate CCD, as well as a third locus that showed evidence of association. The locus most strongly associated with severe CCD was found on chromosome 34, which is a region containing three serotonin receptor genes.

"This is particularly significant because drugs that work on the serotonin system are the mainstay treatment for OCD in humans, which demonstrates further correlation between the human and animal models," Dodman added. 

Furthermore, genes thought to increase the risk of schizophrenia in humans and evidence linking CCD to stress tolerance were identified in the sequencing of the dogs' genomes. 

"Comparative genomics is a particularly attractive approach to reveal the molecular underpinnings of disease in inbred animals with the hope of gaining new insights into these diseases in dogs and humans," Dr. Edward Ginns, co-author from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, added in Tufts news release.

This study builds on a discovery made in 2010, which identified a gene on canine chromosome 7 that is thought to increase the risk of OCD. Additionally, MRI research conducted in 2013 showed that the structural brain abnormalities of Doberman pinschers with CCD were similar to those of humans with OCD.

"If the canine construct is fully accepted by other OCD researchers, this spontaneously-occurring model of the condition in humans, right down to the biological pathways involved, could help point the way to novel and more effective treatments for such a debilitating condition," Dodman concluded. 

Their findings were recently published in the International Journal of Applied Research in Veterinary Medicine.

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