We know obsessive-compulsive disorder has a genetic basis, and now researchers are digging into our DNA to figure out exactly what it is.

A study in Cell Reports points the finger at five gene mutations that affect proteins called kainate receptors. In an experiment, mice without those receptors displayed behaviors associated with OCD, such as grooming themselves too much, and motor impairments. The researchers say their findings link the receptors with corticostriatal function, a reference to connections in our brains that are associated with, among other things, “habitual behaviors.”

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“By demonstrating that these receptors have this role in development, researchers down the line will have a target to develop treatments for obsessive-compulsive behavior,” Northwestern University said in a statement.

Previous research has put kainate receptors under the microscope, linking them to OCD as well as other psychiatric conditions or developmental disorders like autism. According to lead author and Northwestern physiology and neurobiology professor Anis Contractor, the new findings support that idea. “People with OCD are known to have abnormalities in function of corticostriatal circuits.”

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a psychiatric condition marked by uncontrollable and upsetting thoughts — the obsessions — and compulsive behaviors that often result from them. An example, and one of the most common public representations of a person with OCD, is someone who has an obsessive fear of germs and compulsively washes their hands.

Source: Contractor A, Xu J, Marshall JJ, et al. Complete Disruption of the Kainate Receptor Gene Family Results in Corticostriatal Dysfunction in Mice. Cell Reports. 2017.

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