Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a type of anxiety disorder marked by severe anxiety with obsessive thoughts that may or may not lead to compulsions. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 2.2 million people in the United States suffer from OCD. Due to the increasing diagnoses of OCD, many researchers have started studying OCD and genetics. These researchers are seeking to answer the question, “Is OCD hereditary?”

Understanding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Before delving into the theories behind OCD and associated hereditary genes, it’s important to understand how OCD affects sufferers.

Obsessive Thoughts

Individuals with OCD often have disturbing thoughts and anxiety about the world around them. They may fear they will harm themselves or someone else. Their thought patterns obsessively think about their actions. These thoughts sometimes cause a person with OCD to perform certain actions to alleviate the thoughts. These actions, referred to as compulsions, are often repeated because the person doesn’t feel he or she has done enough to prevent the perceived risk.

Types of Compulsions

Individuals living with compulsions usually only have specific actions to relieve their obsessive thoughts. The most common compulsions include washing hands, excessive cleaning, touching, checking, and hoarding.

  • Washing hands: A person washes his or her hands to make sure they are free of germs.
  • Excessive cleaning: The person never feels his or her surroundings are clean enough and fears that germs will make him or her sick.
  • Touching: This person will touch things to alleviate some thought.
  • Checking: This individual will repeatedly check if doors and windows are closed and locked, and check appliances to make sure they are turned off.
  • Hoarding: Hoarders will save large amounts of items because they fear something horrible will happen if they throw stuff out.

Now that you understand what OCD is, you can start to understand how OCD and genetics come into play.

Understanding Genetics and OCD

It’s only been recently that researchers have started looking for a link between OCD and genetics. Before, many people believed that environmental factors caused OCD and the best treatment was cognitive behavioral therapy (changing thoughts so that the person can change behaviors). As researchers looked more into OCD, hereditary factors started to emerge.

Glutamate Transport Gene and OCD

Researchers at the University of Toronto, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Chicago, and the University of Michigan have found a link between OCD and genetics. These researchers found that relatives with the disorder possessed a difference in a gene called, SLC1A1, which is the glutamate transporter gene. They found that the discrepancy in the gene caused the flow of glutamine, in relation to brain cells, to happen much quicker for people with the disorder. This development between OCD and genetics will help advancements in the manufacturer of glutamine-targeted medications.

OCD and Genetics: The hSERT Mutation

The researchers at Yale and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) have found a mutation in the gene coding of the human serotonin transporter (sSERT). Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps transmit signals across nerve cells to help process information. Serotonin usually travels back after the signal transports but some people do not receive enough serotonin back. This lack of serotonin reuptake can increase the risk of someone having OCD.

The researchers also found a mutation in the promoter area of the hSERT gene, another link indicating a connection between OCD and genetics. This area controls the production of protein in the gene to help with the overall signal transportation process. In addition, Dr. Fusan Kilic and Rudnick discovered the transportation process activity is much quicker in people with this disorder.


As studies come up with more correlations between OCD and genetics, it becomes much more evident that people can inherit this disorder. This may make many of you cringe thinking about your mother, father, aunt or uncle who suffers from this anxiety disorder, but don’t worry too much ‘ you may not suffer from OCD.

The good news, if you do have OCD, is that hereditary causes might eventually receive help with medication. As more information becomes available, laboratories will start to come up with medications to help correct the biological reasons for the disorder. Until then, the best treatment for OCD lies in anti-anxiety medication and cognitive behavioral therapy.


Paula Brady (2003). Genetics may help explain OCD. Retrieved September 16, 2008, from Yale Daily News Web site: http://www.yaledailynews.com/articles/view/9006.

Rick Nauert, PH.D. (2006). Genetic Link for OCD Discovered. Retrieved September 16, 2008, from Psychcentral.com Web site: http://psychcentral.com/news/2006/07/27/genetic-link-for-ocd-discovered/.

National Institute of Mental Health (n.d.) The Numbers Count: Mental Disorders in America. Retrieved September 16, 2008, from National Institute of Mental Health Web site: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-numbers-count-mental-disorders-in-america.shtml.

 Posted on : June 12, 2014