Is obsessive-compulsive disorder an autoimmune disease?

CMAJ. 2001 Nov 13;165(10):1353-8.


OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVE DISORDER (OCD) IS A COMMON and debilitating neuropsychiatric disorder. Although it is widely believed to have a genetic basis, no specific genetic factors have been conclusively identified as yet, leading researchers to look for environmental risk factors that may interact with an underlying genetic susceptibility in affected individuals. Recently, there has been increasing interest in a possible link between streptococcal infections and the development of OCD and tic disorders in children. It has been suggested that OCD in some susceptible individuals may be caused by an autoimmune response to streptococcal infections, that is, a similar biological mechanism to that associated with Sydenham's chorea. The term "pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections" (PANDAS) has been used to describe a subset of children with abrupt onset or exacerbations of OCD or tics, or both, following streptococcal infections. Affected children have relatively early symptom onset, characteristic comorbid symptoms and subtle neurological dysfunction. Neuroimaging studies reveal increased basal ganglia volumes, and the proposed cause involves the cross-reaction of streptococcal antibodies with basal ganglia tissue. Vulnerability to developing PANDAS probably involves genetic factors, and elevated levels of D8/17 antibodies may represent a marker of susceptibility to PANDAS. Prophylactic antibiotic treatments have thus far not been shown to be helpful in preventing symptom exacerbations. Intravenous immunoglobulin therapy may be an effective treatment in selected individuals. Further understanding of the role of streptococcal infections in childhood-onset OCD will be important in determining alternative and effective strategies for treatment, early identification and prevention of this common and debilitating psychiatric disorder.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Autoimmune Diseases / complications*
  • Causality
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder / etiology*
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder / therapy
  • Risk Factors
  • Streptococcal Infections / complications*