Cognitive contributions to checking compulsions

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that afflicts three percent of all Canadians. The disorder is characterized by intrusive and unwanted thoughts, images or impulses that cause anxiety, and that are temporarily relieved by the execution of specific compulsions. Obsessions and compulsions can occupy a large proportion of individuals’ time and energy and can interfere with daily routines, functioning at work, social activities and relationships with others. Checking compulsions are among the most common manifestations of OCD. Individuals with checking compulsions have intrusive concerns that they have failed to perform some task (such as locking the door or turning off the stove) and feel compelled to repeatedly check to ensure that the task was indeed completed. Preliminary evidence suggests that impaired prospective memory may play an important role in checking compulsions. Prospective memory is the ability to remember plans and intentions at a later moment. Everyday life and clinical observations show that checkers’ compulsions are related to this future-oriented aspect of memory and that the types of activities that tend to trigger checking compulsions are prospective memory tasks. Dr. Carrie Cuttler was previously supported by MSFHR with two research training awards. Her current work continues her exploration of whether individuals with checking compulsions have a cognitive deficit related to prospective memory. She hypothesizes that checking compulsions may develop to compensate for an impairment in prospective memory. In other words, individuals who frequently forget to perform tasks may develop a strategy of repeatedly checking to ensure that important tasks are not forgotten. Cuttler’s research focuses on improving our understanding of the mechanisms underlying OCD. The results will improve the quality of OCD patients’ lives by setting the stage for more effective treatments for reducing the frequency of checking compulsions.