2018 Jenike Young Investigator Award

Active avoidance of threat cues and fear extinction in obsessive compulsive disorder

Michael Wheaton, PhD

Barnard College (New York, NY)

Award Amount: $50,000

Past research has shown that we can learn to be afraid of things that we encounter, and that we can also modify our fears through exposure. New research has shown that when healthy people are able to perform some type of action in order to avoid a threat, they may become less fearful when confronted with different, future threats. This type of avoidance is called “active avoidance.” Many compulsive behaviors in OCD could be considered forms of “active avoidance.” However, we know that when OCD patients engage in compulsions, these behaviors reinforce, rather than diminish, their fears. Additionally, when they perform compulsions in the context of ERP treatment, the treatment becomes less effective overall.

Dr. Wheaton’s research will test active avoidance and fear responses in people with OCD — the first study of its kind. In order to test this, research participants, some of whom have OCD, will be shown images, and receive mild electric shocks in order to evoke a fear response which can then be measured. Some participants will have the opportunity to learn how to avoid the shocks (active avoidance), while other participants will continue to receive the shocks until the participants in the active avoidance group learn how to avoid them. Dr. Wheaton and his team will compare the fear responses in these two groups with those of healthy control subjects and people with OCD. They expect to find that active avoidance is less effective in reducing fear response in people with OCD when compared to healthy individuals. This study is an important step toward future brain imaging research that will investigate the underlying brain circuitry in OCD, as well as the development of fear response tests that may predict treatment outcomes and allow clinicians to create more effective, individualized treatment plans for OCD patients.