Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition where a person has persistent, unwanted thoughts, urges, or impulses (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors or mental acts (compulsions) that they feel compelled to perform in response to the obsessions. The obsessions and compulsions in OCD can vary widely from person to person but usually fall into one or more of four general categories:

  • Checking: such as locks, alarm systems, ovens, or light switches, or thinking you have a medical condition like pregnancy, cancer, or schizophrenia.
  • Contamination: a fear of things that might be dirty or a compulsion to clean. You may hear this called “obsessive cleanliness disorder.” This can include mental contamination too.
  • Symmetry and ordering: the need to have things arranged, lined up, and organized in a very precise way.
  • Ruminations and intrusive thoughts: an obsession with a line of thought. Some thoughts can be violent or disturbing, such as harming yourself or loved ones. This also includes thinking about overwhelming questions which can’t be answered or frightening situations where you have no control.

While OCD was once classified as an anxiety disorder and anxiety is a big part of the condition, it’s now classified as a distinct mental illness. The anxiety that many people experience with OCD is now thought to be a secondary effect.

Neuroplastic Brain Changes Allow OCD to Develop

OCD is a complex condition, and the exact causes are not known. Although we do know one thing for sure. The ability of your brain to change, called neuroplasticity, allows the disorder to develop. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, phobic behaviors, addictions, epilepsy, and more mental health conditions also occur because of neuroplastic change.

Scans show differences in brains with OCD.

Brain scans show that people with OCD typically have abnormal increased activity in certain brain regions. Studies suggest that their brains get stuck in a loop that prevents them from stopping behaviors even when they know intellectually they should. A brain region known as the striatum, which is involved in decision-making and motor control, is thought to play a key role.

Researchers from University of Michigan Medicine gathered the largest-ever pool of task-based functional brain scans and other data from OCD studies around the world, and combined them for a meta-analysis published in Biological Psychiatry. U-M psychiatry faculty member Kate Fitzgerald, M.D., M.S., said this about the brains of people with OCD:

“It’s like their foot is on the brake telling them to stop, but the brake isn’t attached to the part of the wheel that can actually stop them.”

ocd disorder, checking order symmetry

Other research

Other research suggests that OCD stems from problems in communication between the brain’s monitoring/inhibitory controls and its executive functions. Brain scans show two general types of abnormal activity, resulting in either an overactive or a sleepy brain. The brain activity tends to correlate with symptoms. Contamination, checking, order and symmetry, and intrusive thoughts generally correlate with an overactive frontal lobe and basal ganglia. On the other hand, some obsessive behaviors, such as hoarding, can be the result of a brain that is underactive in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and parietal network.

Contributing Factors:

While neuroplasticity is the process through which the brain changes, multiple factors contribute to the development of OCD, including genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological. The interplay of genetic predisposition, environmental influences, and neurobiological processes influencing the condition is complex, multifaceted, and not fully understood. Here are some considerations about the role of neuroplasticity in the condition:

Brain Structure and Function

As outlined above, studies show differences in the structure and function of certain brain regions in individuals with OCD. It’s a “chicken and egg” question of whether the brain issues cause the condition or whether the brain changes are the result of the symptoms.


Dysregulation of neurotransmitters, particularly low levels of serotonin, is implicated in OCD. This is why taking SSRI antidepressants can often help OCD. However, studies show that managing OCD through other methods can also raise serotonin levels implying correlation not causality.


There is evidence of a genetic component to OCD, suggesting a hereditary predisposition. Some experts think that OCD that begins in childhood may be different from the OCD that forms in adults. For example, a review of twin studies showed that genes play a larger role when OCD starts in childhood compared to adulthood onset.

Environmental Influences

Stressful life events, adverse childhood experiences, trauma, or environmental factors may contribute to the onset or exacerbation of OCD symptoms. Brain change is experience-dependent. Stress-induced neuroplasticity plays a critical role in almost all mental health disorders.

Cognitive Patterns

Maladaptive thought patterns and cognitive processes are central to the development of OCD. Intrusive thoughts start in the subconscious brain with implicit memories, fears, and beliefs and can make a person feel uncomfortable, anxious, hopeless, or depressed. In an effort to ease their emotional distress, people repeatedly behave in automatic, habitual ways. Consistent repetition of thoughts and actions encourages the neuroplastic brain change that reinforces the patterns.

Neuroplasticity Is Also the Solution

OCD happens in the brain and can be helped there.

Fortunately for us, neuroplasticity works both ways. You can improve your brain’s function through the same neuroplastic process in reverse. It’s possible to improve mental health conditions by driving a brain back towards normal operation through neuroplastic change. Brain plasticity research has demonstrated that many aspects of your brain — in neurotypical and neurologically diverse individuals — can be improved by targeted training.

Neurofeedback brain training is one way to do that.

happy person smiling, good mental health

Neurofeedback Training Guides Neuroplastic Change to Help the OCD Brain

Traditionally, OCD has been treated with medications and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Both are effective in minimizing the symptoms. However, with medication, any improvement stops when the medication stops. While CBT has been shown to encourage neuroplasticity, it can take a long time to achieve the desired results.

Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback that teaches a person’s brain optimal functioning through real-time monitoring of brainwave activity and feedback — operant conditioning. A brain learns to perform at ideal levels and makes neuroplastic changes allowing it to operate at those levels after training, which relieves the symptoms of many physical and mental health conditions including OCD. Go here for a detailed explanation of how neurofeedback works.

Compared to other methods, neurofeedback can be relatively fast. Almost everyone we train notices beneficial changes within the first ten sessions. An average of 25-40 sessions are typically needed for the brain to make permanent neuroplastic changes. We want you to see the desired results quickly and to do that, we’ll schedule two to three sessions a week when initially training.

You could have relief of symptoms and a better brain in just months.

What the research says

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of research to date on using neurofeedback specifically for OCD. One of the first studies done on neurofeedback for OCD was published by the Journal for Neurotherapy in 2003. In the study, patients showed significant improvement after undergoing individualized neurofeedback training. At the 15-month follow-up, they had maintained the improvements. In another study in 2011, 33 out of 36 people who received neurofeedback training showed clinical improvement according to the Yale-Brown obsessive-compulsive scale.


Neurofeedback training can optimize brain wave amplitudes, enhance connectivity between parts of the brain, and adjust the amount of activity and responsiveness of specific regions of the brain. Neurofeedback has been around for decades and is proven by science. NASA even uses it to help astronauts improve focus and mental clarity.

There is ample research to show that neurofeedback successfully improves many mental health conditions, including depression, autism, ADD and ADHD, brain injuries, concussions, stroke recovery, PTSD, addictions, seizure disorders, migraines, chronic pain, chemo brain, and more.

At Grey Matters, we are passionate about helping people live their best lives, including optimizing their brain’s health and function. Give us a call at (317) 215-7208 or send us a message today to talk about how we can help you.