Pathophysiology of obsessive-compulsive disorder: a necessary link between phenomenology, neuropsychology, imagery and physiology

Prog Neurobiol. 2004 Feb;72(3):195-221. doi: 10.1016/j.pneurobio.2004.02.004.


Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by repetitive intrusive thoughts and compulsive time-consuming behaviors classified into three to five distinct symptom dimensions including: (1) aggressive/somatic obsessions with checking compulsions; (2) contamination concerns with washing compulsions; (3) symmetry obsessions with counting/ordering compulsions; (4) hoarding obsessions with collecting compulsions; and (5) sexual/religious concerns. Phenomenologically, OCD could be thought of as the irruption of internal signals centered on the erroneous perception that "something is wrong" in a specific situation. This generates severe anxiety, leading to recurrent behaviors aimed at reducing the emotional tension. In this paper, we examine how the abnormalities in brain activity reported in OCD can be interpreted in the light of physiology after consideration of various approaches (phenomenology, neuropsychology, neuroimmunology and neuroimagery) that contribute to proposing the central role of several cortical and subcortical regions, especially the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPC), the head of the caudate nucleus and the thalamus. The OFC is involved in the significance attributed to the consequences of action, thereby subserving decision-making, whereas the ACC is particularly activated in situations in which there are conflicting options and a high likelihood of making an error. The DLPC plays a critical part in the cognitive processing of relevant information. This cortical information is then integrated by the caudate nucleus, which controls behavioral programs. A dysfunction of these networks at one or several stages will result in the emergence and maintenance of repetitive thoughts and characteristic OCD behavior.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Diagnostic Imaging / methods*
  • Humans
  • Nerve Net / pathology
  • Nerve Net / physiology
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder / diagnosis*
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder / psychology
  • Pyramidal Tracts / pathology
  • Pyramidal Tracts / physiology