The buildup of an urge in obsessive–compulsive disorder: Behavioral and neuroimaging correlates

Emily R. Stern, Carina Brown, Molly Ludlow, Rebbia Shahab, Katherine Collins, Alexis Lieval, Russell H. Tobe, Dan V. Iosifescu, Katherine E. Burdick, Lazar Fleysher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) is highly heterogeneous. While obsessions often involve fear of harm, many patients report uncomfortable sensations and/or urges that drive repetitive behaviors in the absence of a specific fear. Prior work suggests that urges in OCD may be similar to everyday “urges-for-action” (UFA) such as the urge to blink, swallow, or scratch, but very little work has investigated the pathophysiology underlying urges in OCD. In the current study, we used an urge-to-blink approach to model sensory-based urges that could be experimentally elicited and compared across patients and controls using the same task stimuli. OCD patients and controls suppressed eye blinking over a period of 60 s, alternating with free blinking blocks, while brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging. OCD patients showed significantly increased activation in several regions during the early phase of eyeblink suppression (first 30 s), including mid-cingulate, insula, striatum, parietal cortex, and occipital cortex, with lingering group differences in parietal and occipital regions during late eyeblink suppression (last 30 s). There were no differences in brain activation during free blinking blocks, and no conditions where OCD patients showed reduced activation compared to controls. In an exploratory analysis of blink counts performed in a subset of subjects, OCD patients were less successful than controls in suppressing blinks. These data indicate that OCD patients exhibit altered brain function and behavior when experiencing and suppressing the urge to blink, raising the possibility that the disorder is associated with a general abnormality in the UFA system that could ultimately be targeted by future treatments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1611-1625
Number of pages15
JournalHuman Brain Mapping
Issue number6
StatePublished - 15 Apr 2020


  • fMRI
  • insula
  • interoception
  • obsessive–compulsive disorder
  • repetitive behavior
  • sensorimotor
  • suppress
  • urge


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