Researchers have developed a novel "brain training" app that could help people who suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) to manage their symptoms, including excessive handwashing and contamination fears that affect up to 46 percent people.
Excessive washing can be harmful as sometimes OCD patients use spirits, surface cleansers or even bleach to clean their hands. The behaviour can have a serious impact on people's lives, mental health, relationships and their ability to hold down jobs.
The new intervention, which can be delivered through a smartphone app, involves patients watching videos of themselves washing their hands or touching fake contaminated surfaces.
"This technology will allow people to gain help at any time within the environment where they live or work, rather than having to wait for appointments. The use of smartphone videos allows the treatment to be personalised to the individual," said Barbara Sahakian, Professor at the University of Cambridge in the UK.
For the study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, the team examined nearly 100 participants.
The participants were divided into three groups: the first group watched videos on their smartphones of themselves washing their hands; the second group watched similar videos but of themselves touching fake contaminated surfaces and the third — the control group — watched themselves making neutral hand movements.
Based on their one week of viewing videos, participants from both of the first two groups — those who had watched the hand washing video and those with the exposure and response prevention video — improved in terms of reductions in OCD symptoms and showed greater cognitive flexibility compared with the neutral control group.
On average, participants in the first two groups saw their Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale (YBOCS) scores — used to assess the severity of OCD — improve by around 21 percent.
The smartphone app is not currently available for public use. Further research is required before the researchers can show conclusively that it is effective in helping patients with OCD.