App-delivered videos of patients washing hands or touching dirty objects reduces OCD symptoms

Researchers from Cambridge University found that an app that lets OCD patients watch themselves wash their hands or touch a dirty object helps reduce symptoms and cognitive flexibility.
By Laura Lovett
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A recent Cambridge University-led study found evidence that a new app that lets patients watch a video of themselves washing their hands or touching a dirty object could be key to improving obsessive compulsive disorder symptoms in patients with contamination fears. 

In the study, published in Scientific Reports, OCD patients that got either of the two video interventions improved their scores on the Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Sale by approximately 21 percent on average. 

The study included 96 patients between the ages of 18 to 65 with severe OCD. When participants first met with researchers, they were split into three groups. In the first group researchers took a video of participants washing their hands. In the second group researchers took a video of participants touching a replica of stained toilet paper and fake feces. The third group was recorded making ordinary hand motions. 

These videos were then uploaded through a smartphone app. Researchers instructed patients to watch the video four times a day for seven days and, in the end, found that participants in either of the intervention groups had improved cognitive flexibility and reduced OCD symptoms. 

“We present here two novel smartphone interventions found to improve cognitive flexibility and OCD symptoms in individuals with OCD-like contamination fears,” researchers wrote. “It is striking that these changes in executive function and OCD symptomatology occurred after only one week of applying the intervention.”

Why it matters

Contamination distress is very common in patients living with OCD, impacting 46 percent of people with the condition, according to the study. The disorder is difficult  to treat — individuals are typically given a combination of medication and exposure therapy, where they are gradually put in contact with containments. However, about 40 percent of patients “fail to respond” to these treatments, according to the researchers. 

Researchers noted that the hand-washing video in particular could help supplement real hand washing for some patients.  

“Innovative technology-based therapies, for example using smartphones — 'technology-based personalized medicine' — have the potential to transform OCD treatment,” researchers wrote. “By moving therapy out of the clinician’s office and into the hands of the patients themselves, these interventions can be tailored to the specific needs of individual patients, which could ultimately improve treatments.”

The trend 

Mental health apps have become increasingly popular in the digital health space. The main bulk of those apps remain focused on anxiety and depression. 

However, in February nOCD, a new app that helps people mange their OCD, landed $1 million. The app lets users access educational material and Exposure Response Prevention Therapy guidances, as well as enter customizable plans. 

On the record

"Participants told us that the smartphone washing app allowed them to easily engage in their daily activities,” Baland Jalal, lead author of the study and a faculty member of the University of Cambridgels psychiatry department, said in a statement. “For example, one participant said 'if I am commuting on the bus and touch something contaminated and can't wash my hands for the next two hours, the app would be a sufficient substitute’."