IOCDF Announces 2021 Research Grant Awards

The International OCD Foundation is pleased to announce the 2021 Research Grant Awards. Seven exciting research projects were selected to receive a total of more than $800,000 in funding support thanks to the generosity of IOCDF donors.  

Our research grant program includes two categories:

Innovator Awards

Award recipients in this category are investigating the big questions in OCD research using cutting-edge technology and ideas. Their research has the potential for a deep and lasting impact on treatment and scientific understanding of OCD. These awards are made possible by the generosity of an anonymous donor.

Michael Jenike Young Investigator Awards

Awardees are promising early-career researchers who are working to establish themselves in the field of OCD and related disorders, and who have strong research projects. Funding is made possible by the thousands of individual donors who contribute to the IOCDF Research Grant Fund each year. A grant from OCD Jacksonville established a fund for research on the role of race, ethnicity, and culture in OCD, and supports the Jenike Award made to Dr. Amanda Sanchez at the University of Pennsylvania.

Applications are accepted January through February, annually.

2021 Grant Winners

These seven winning grants were selected through a highly competitive peer-review process where top researchers were asked to review grants in their areas of expertise, and the most highly rated projects were then subjected to a second round of scrutiny from the full committee. The final seven projects represent the strongest and most promising science from an excellent pool of applications.

IOCDF Innovator Award Recipients

How Disease and Medication Shape the Brain, and How the Brain Predicts Individual Treatment Response; Learning from Global Collaboration
Principal Investigator: Odile van den Heuvel, MD, PhD
Amsterdam UMC, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Award amount: $300,000

Brain imaging has revolutionized our understanding of mental health disorders like OCD. It has revealed important information about which parts of the brain are impacted by OCD, and has given us new clues about why certain treatments work, or how to improve treatments so that they work better. 

An important part of many types of scientific research, including brain imaging research, is sample size. It’s not possible to collect brain imaging data from every person on Earth with OCD. Instead, researchers must recruit a small number of people with OCD – a sample of the overall population – and compare data collected from this sample with data from a sample of healthy individuals. Then, researchers can use math to determine whether differences they see in people with OCD are real and not just due to random variations from one person’s brain to another. The more people in a sample, the more likely that the differences observed are real and not due to chance. Larger samples also allow researchers to be more confident about minor differences they observe between people with OCD and healthy people – and those minor differences may actually have important meanings.

This grant was awarded to Dr. Odile van den Heuvel to continue her work and the work of the ENIGMA-OCD collaborative working group. ENIGMA-OCD has allowed brain imaging researchers at institutions around the world to coordinate and pool their data together to create a much larger sample of people with OCD than any one researcher would be able to study on their own. The working group has already discovered small changes in brain structure that may exist in people with OCD, and with this funding support will begin to look at new questions, such as: Does the length of time that a person has had OCD have an impact on brain function? How does medication for OCD alter brain function? And can differences in brain function observed using brain imaging technology predict how well a person will respond to OCD treatment?

Pairing tVNS and Exposure and Response Prevention to Improve Symptoms of OCD
Principal Investigators: John Williamson, PhD and Carol Mathews, MD
University of Florida
Award amount: $300,000

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with exposure and response prevention (ERP) is a safe, effective, and proven treatment for OCD. Researchers have tried to better understand why ERP is helpful for OCD, and some believe that ERP helps patients “un-learn” the connection between compulsive behaviors and feelings of relief from anxiety or fear. If this process, called “fear extinction learning,” could be accelerated or enhanced during therapy, that may bring faster relief to people with OCD, or help patients who haven’t benefited from ERP see an improvement in their symptoms. 

Previous research has suggested that stimulating the Vagus nerve – the nerve that connects the brain to the heart, lungs, and gut – could help enhance fear extinction learning. Advances in device technology have made it possible to stimulate the Vagus nerve through the skin without incisions, and with only limited discomfort to patients, making it possible for patients to receive Vagus nerve stimulation and other therapies (like ERP) at the same time. Dr. Williamson and Dr. Mathews have already studied Vagus nerve stimulation in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and found promising results. Their research on Vagus nerve stimulation in OCD could not only help us better understand how ERP works to benefit patients, but could also create a new option to enhance its effectiveness.

2021 Michael Jenike Young Investigator Award Recipients

Optimization of Parent-Led Exposure Delivery in Pediatric OCD
Principal Investigator: Erin O’Connor, PhD
Pediatric Anxiety Research Center at Bradley Hospital
Award amount: $50,000

When children develop OCD, the most effective treatment available for them is cognitive behavioral therapy with exposure and response prevention (ERP). In this treatment, children engage in exposure work where they intentionally trigger their fears (or engage in activities that are likely to trigger their fears) and prevent themselves from engaging in compulsive rituals meant to reduce or eliminate their anxiety. Most exposure work occurs outside of the therapist’s office, and for children, parents are often deeply involved in this work. 

Dr. O’Connor’s project will train parents in the essentials of ERP, and test the effectiveness of this training. Dr. O’Connor and her colleagues hope that through this training, parents will become better equipped to guide their children through exposures at home, and will be able to help children engage in a greater quantity of high-quality exposures, leading to better treatment outcomes.

Developing a Cultural Adaptation Toolkit to Increase Equity for Underserved Youth with Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders
Principal Investigator: Amanda Sanchez, PhD
University of Pennsylvania
Award amount: $50,000

While many effective treatments for OCD have been developed through research, most of the studies that were used to develop and test these treatments did not include diverse groups of research participants. This lack of diversity creates a missed opportunity: when groups are not included in research, researchers miss the chance to learn how treatments can be adapted to meet the unique needs of diverse populations. These needs can be influenced by race, ethnicity, culture, income, gender identity, sexual orientation, immigration status, and other social, economic, and cultural factors ‒ or a unique combination of these factors. 

Clinicians on the front lines are often the ones left figuring out how to adapt OCD treatments to meet the challenges that their clients face, without any research to guide them. Dr. Sanchez’s award funds her and her team’s work to collect proven strategies for adapting OCD treatment to meet the needs of low income youth and youth of color. Through interviews with youth and clinicians, as well as data collected at a clinic serving youth of color and low-income youth in Philadelphia, they will create a toolkit and training that will help clinicians overcome barriers and provide effective treatment to youth with OCD from a greater range of backgrounds.

Correlates of Treatment Outcome Using Multimodal Neuroimaging in Children with PANDAS
Principal Investigator: Sarah O’Dor, PhD
Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School
Award amount: $50,000

Researchers are increasingly interested in the connection between inflammation in the brain and OCD symptoms in both Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorder Associated with Streptococcal infections (PANDAS) and more typical childhood onset OCD. The IOCDF has funded several studies in recent years investigating this link, including ongoing research that is testing the use of anti-inflammatory medications as treatments in both adults and children. 

Previous research has found that naproxen sodium (often sold using the brand Aleve) can treat inflammation in the brain, and that taking naproxen sodium helped alleviate OCD symptoms in children with PANDAS. Dr. O’Dor’s study will investigate how naproxen sodium changes the brains of these children by using cutting-edge MRI techniques to measure inflammation – these same techniques are being utilized in Dr. Kyle Williams’ 2019 Innovator Award project. The project’s findings will provide additional data regarding the role of inflammation in childhood OCD, and may unlock new avenues for treatment.

Beyond the Goal versus Habit Binary: A Computational EEG Study of the Neurocognitive Mechanisms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Principal Investigator: Amy Rapp, PhD
Columbia University
Award amount: $50,000

In order to better understand OCD, researchers are investigating what happens in the brain when people with OCD perform compulsions. Some believe that in OCD, the parts of the brain that allow us to control and regulate repetitive habits aren’t working right, which leads to repetitive, ritualistic behaviors. 

Dr. Rapp’s project will look deeper into this question and examine whether multiple pathways in the brain ‒ not just those related to repetitive behaviors ‒ are responsible for compulsive behaviors in OCD. They will collect highly-detailed information about brain function from 30 people with OCD and 30 healthy individuals using electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures electrical activity in the brain using sensors in a cap that participants will wear on their heads. Ultimately, Dr. Rapp’s project may provide a richer and fuller understanding of what happens in the brain during compulsions in OCD, and provide new avenues for treatment and prevention.

Waxing and Waning: Using Ecological Momentary Assessment to Assess Chronotype as a Potential Mechanism of Within-Day Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Symptom Fluctuations
Principal Investigator: Hadar Naftalovich, MA
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Award amount: $44,500

Research has suggested links between a person’s sleep habits, their biological clock (circadian rhythm), and OCD symptoms. Many people with OCD report that their symptoms are better or worse at certain times of day, and that they may struggle more with their OCD when they are tired. We can’t just say that OCD symptoms are likely to be worse at night or better in the morning, because each person has a unique circadian rhythm that influences when they feel most alert. Some people are “morning people” and feel energized early in the day; others are “night owls,” or fall somewhere in between. 

Dr. Naftalovich’s study will examine the links between these individual characteristics (called “chronotypes”), levels of alertness, and OCD symptoms. She and her team will closely track OCD symptoms in a group of study participants for a period of seven days, and ask them throughout the day how alert they feel. They’ll also closely monitor each participant’s sleep patterns, including when they go to bed, get up, and how long they sleep. Their goal is to gain a better understanding of how and why OCD symptoms fluctuate throughout the day, and to give people with OCD additional tools and information they can use to understand when their symptoms may be the easiest or most difficult to control. Their findings could provide clues about how treatments that influence alertness and circadian rhythm (like light therapy) could be combined with existing forms of OCD treatment to better serve patients.

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