News Release
November 11, 2015

Adults with OCD Can Benefit from Exposure Therapy When Common Drug Treatment Options Fail, Penn Study Finds

Researchers first to test therapy next to drug treatment

PHILADELPHIA – Patients with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) can improve their symptoms significantly by adding exposure and response prevention therapy to their treatment regimen when common drug treatment options have failed, according to new research from psychiatrists at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Exposure and response prevention therapy is a type of cognitive behavior therapy in which the patient is asked to confront triggers that give rise to their obsessions in order to refrain from performing the rituals in response to these obsessions. The study is published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

 OCD is marked by the performing of “rituals” to decrease distress related to one’s obsessions—such as excessive hand-washing to cope with a fixation on hand hygiene, for example. 

“We know that exposure and response prevention therapy (EX/RP) can benefit these patients,” said lead author, Carmen McLean, PhD, an assistant professor of clinical psychology in the department of Psychiatry at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at Penn. “But this study showed that EX/RP is also effective for OCD sufferers who do not benefit sufficiently from common drug treatments for OCD.”

A previous study compared the effects of adding risperidone, pill placebo, and up to 17 twice-weekly therapist-led sessions of EX/RP to medication for OCD. “We found compared to patients who received medication or placebo, those who received EX/RP showed significantly more reductions in OCD symptoms and depression, as well as significantly more increases in insight, quality of life, and social function after only eight weeks,” McLean said.

The current study included 32 patients who crossed over to receive 17 weeks of EX/RP treatment after not benefitting sufficiently from risperidone. Evaluation at 12 and 16 weeks showed significant symptom improvement, with 25 (78 percent) of patients completing treatment; 17 (53 percent) of them were classified as treatment responders and 11 (34 percent) classified as excellent responders at a 32-week follow-up evaluation. The remaining patients required medication changes during the follow-up period, which enabled them to shift to excellent-responder status.  

This study adds to the large body of research that shows the benefits of exposure therapy for patients with OCD. “We want patients to know that there is another option, if common drug treatments have failed them,” explained senior author, Edna Foa, PhD, professor of Clinical Psychology in the department of Psychiatry and director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at Penn and the creator of exposure therapy. “The therapy can be life-saving, if patients are aware of it.”

Additional Penn authors include Laurie J. Zandberg, PsyD; and Joseph K. Carpenter, BA.

This research was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health (R01 MH45404) and (R01 MH045436).

Penn Medicine is one of the world's leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $5.3 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top five medical schools in the United States for the past 18 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $373 million awarded in the 2015 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System's patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center -- which are recognized as one of the nation's top "Honor Roll" hospitals by U.S. News & World Report -- Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital -- the nation's first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Chestnut Hill Hospital and Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2015, Penn Medicine provided $253.3 million to benefit our community.


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