Memory and OCD

On 60 Minutes, there was a segment on "superior autobiographical memory." A portion of it discussed the relation of memory, OCD, and emotion and that the same parts of the brain are enlarged in people with superior memories and people with OCD. Here is a description, video, and transcript of the segment:

This is the specific part that delved into a correlation between memory and OCD:

He brought along a model of a brain to show us.

"There's two areas that are jumping out at us. The first is this area called the temporal lobe. And this area is quite a bit bigger. Now that's intriguing because this is the chunk of brain neurobiologists think has to do with storing new memories," he explained.

Cahill said this was not a surprise. More interesting, he says, is a second region deep inside the brain called the "caudate nucleus," which scientists believe is involved in what's called habit, or skill learning - and also in obsessive compulsive disorder.

"Can you give us an analogy of how much larger these sections are?" Stahl asked.

"A lot larger, perhaps up to seven or eight what's called standard deviations larger than normal. To understand what that means, if a man was seven or eight standard deviations taller than the height of the average man, he'd be ten feet tall. So we have some potentially whopping effects," he explained.

Now they need to figure out why.

"We have the chicken/egg problem. Do they have these larger brain regions because they have exercised it a lot? Or do they have good memories…because these are larger?" McGaugh explained.

And what about the fact that the caudate nucleus is thought to be involved in obsessive compulsive disorder? The scientists think there may just be a hint there.

And exhibit A is Marilu Henner's closet. "I love organization," she told Stahl while touring her closet. "I like my shoes a certain way, right foot going this way, left foot going that way, so you can always see the toe and the heel on every pair. And you'll see that things are very color coordinated here, but in sections. And I always hang like with like. And I have the exact same hangers, because then everything slides more easily."

"All of them have what we think of, what we describe as OCD-like behaviors. They love to collect things. They have to have things in just the right order," Cahill said.

"What about phobias?" McGaugh asked the group assembled by "60 Minutes."

"Does hypochondria count? It's like, 'Oh, I hope I don't get this. I hope I don't get that disease,'" Brad Williams asked.

Asked if he has a thing about germs, he told Stahl, "I wash hands frequently."

"So do I. In fact, I dropped my keys when I was in a hurry drivin' down here. And I went, alright, so I went back in and I, like, ram I washed 'em off," Bob Petrella added.

"Can you conclude there's a connection? Or is it still way too early?" Stahl asked Cahill.

"Because it's showing up in one fashion or another in all of them, I'd say it's our biggest clue," he replied.

And when you think about it, they even seem to look for ways to organize their memories.

"The thing that is most pleasurable is categorizing any event. Anytime I went bowling in my life, any wedding," Rick Baron said.

He told Stahl he started that when he was six years old.

"Sometimes what I do is, I'll go back July 14th as far back as I can remember, I'll just go July 14th, '67, that happened. And then, maybe I won't remember '68, but I'll remember '69 and '70," Petrella said, with others nodding.

Louise Owen even compares dates. "I'll scroll all the way back to 1985. I'll be like, 'Well, which were better, March thirds or March fourths a year ago? Two years ago? Three years ago?' And go all the way back. It's sort of like mental gymnastics," she explained, laughing.

There is a certain irony to the fact that it is McGaugh who is studying this phenomenon, because he is known in the field of memory for discoveries these people seem to defy.

His work with rats, like one that doesn't know there is a platform hidden below the surface of a water tank, proved the role of adrenaline in making strong memories. The rat swims around the edge, then eventually ventures out and by chance bumps into the platform. The next day he'll find it just a little bit faster.

But another rat, that learned where the platform was the day before, then received a shot of adrenaline immediately afterward; the rat immediately swam to the platform.

Adrenaline actually made this rat's brain remember better, and McGaugh says the same thing happens in people - when we experience something emotional, positive or negative, our bodies release adrenaline, searing those memories into our brains more strongly.

"What can you and I do, right now, to make sure we remember this conversation?" Stahl asked. "I could kick you."

"Yeah," McGaugh replied, laughing. "Or I could embarrass you."

"Most of my research is with laboratory rats. And suppose I said, all of a sudden, 'Oh, and I'm gonna demonstrate to you.' And I drop about six rats right at your feet," he added.

"I'd remember. Believe me, I'd remember," she replied.

But people like Louise Owen don't need such events to remember things.

And that's what's so baffling: these people do remember the ordinary, non-emotional events the rest of us routinely forget.




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