Researchers at the University of Cambridge have developed a brain training app to enable symptoms management for patients suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

When tested in a clinical study, the team observed that one week of training with the new app can result in significant improvements.

Characterised by repetitive and compulsive behaviour, OCD may also lead to cognitive rigidity that prevents patients from adapting to new situations or rules.

“When tested in a clinical study, the team observed that one week of training with the new app can result in significant improvements.”

The researchers noted that breaking out of compulsive habits, such as severe contamination fears and excessive washing behaviour, needs cognitive flexibility.

OCD is traditionally treated with medication and cognitive behavioural therapy, but nearly 40% of patients are reported to fail at responding to the treatment. Cognitive behavioural therapy is also considered as stressful to the patients.

To address these issues, the researchers have developed a new therapeutic approach that can be delivered through a smartphone app. During this treatment, patients watch videos of their repetitive and compulsive behaviour.

For the study, 93 healthy people with strong contamination fears, as measured using the Padua Inventory Contamination Fear Subscale, were recruited and randomised to three groups.

The first group watched videos of themselves washing their hands, while the second group watched videos of fake contaminated surfaces and the third group watched videos of neutral hand movements.

Following one week of viewing 30-second videos four times per day, the first and second group participants experienced a decrease in OCD symptoms and greater cognitive flexibility, compared to the neutral group.

University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry professor Barbara Sahakian said: “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. These results while very exciting and encouraging, require further research, examining the use of these smartphone interventions in people with a diagnosis of OCD.”

Findings from the study were published in the Scientific Reports journal.