Physiological Psychology is as described by Kalat (1998) as the study of the physiological, evolutionary, and developmental mechanisms of behaviour and experience. It is devoted to the study of brain functioning, how Neurons and Glia convey messages to one another and other parts of the body for it to function and work accordingly. Future studies of physiological psychology will help predict behavioural patterns in society and how brain functions can be “rewritten” through cognitive therapies .e.g. alcoholism, drug addictions.
Kalat (1998) further goes onto explain that a Biological psychologist (physiological psychologist) try to answer four types of questions about any given behaviour, how it relates to the physiology of the brain (what parts of the brain are active) and other organs, how it develops within the individual, how did the capacity for this behaviour evolve and why did this behaviour evolve.
Without the physiological understanding of how brain process work in relation to behaviour it is difficult to correctly diagnose a behaviour pattern and its cause.
Kalat (1998) describes that “having a little anxiety can be useful”, however OCD is a condition in which there is excessive anxiety.
OCD can be explained to a patient in simple physiological terms explaining the behaviour of the brain, for example:
OCD patients often have a broken mechanism (being a synapse interaction) in their brain that would usually stop a thought once you have it. In an OCD patient it does not (stop the thought) – so the thought is allowed to revolve. This seems in description that it would sound more like a broken record than OCD really does, but that isn’t what really happens.
OCD can be genetic but is most certainly physiological in nature. Without an understanding of brain functioning and how these neurons interact, how can psychologists work to alleviate the symptoms of the disorder?
Research into the biological causes and effects of OCD has revealed a link between OCD and insufficient levels of the brain chemical, serotonin. Serotonin is one of the brain’s chemical messengers that transmit signals between brain cells. Serotonin plays a role in the regulation of mood, aggression, impulse control, sleep, appetite, body temperature and pain. For example persons with unregulated serotonin lead to destructive antisocial behaviour patterns, which society commonly experiences on a growing scale.
All of the medicines used to treat OCD raise the levels of serotonin available to transmit messages. Without physiological psychological research into the effects that these medicines have on the brain society would lack the knowledge and understanding of how to diagnose and appropriately treat disorders such as OCD.
Modern brain imaging techniques have allowed researchers to study the activity of specific areas of the brain. Such studies have shown that people with OCD have more than usual activity in three areas of the brain. These are:
The caudate nucleus, specific brain cells in the basal ganglia, located deep in the centre of the brain this area of the brain acts as a filter for thoughts coming in from other areas. The caudate nucleus is also considered to be important in managing habitual and repetitive behaviours.
When OCD is successfully treated with drugs or therapy, the activity in this area of the brain usually decreases. This shows that both drugs and a change in “thinking” can alter the physical functioning of the brain.
The prefrontal orbital cortex, located in the front area of the brain the level of activity in the prefrontal orbital cortex is believed to affect appropriate social behaviour. Lowered activity or damage in this region is linked to feeling uninhibited, making bad judgments and feeling a lack of
guilt. More activity may therefore cause more worry about social concerns. Such concerns include: being meticulous, neat and preoccupied with cleanliness, and being afraid of acting inappropriately. All of these concerns are symptoms of OCD.
The cingulate gyrus, in the centre of the brain
the cingulate gyrus is believed to contribute the emotional response to obsessive thoughts. This area of the brain tells you to perform compulsions to relieve anxiety. This region is highly interconnected to the prefrontal orbital cortex and the basal ganglia via a number of brain cell pathways. The basal ganglia, the prefrontal orbital cortex and the cingulate gyrus all have many brain cells affected by serotonin. Researchers believe that medicines that raise the levels of serotonin available to transmit messages may change the level of activity in these areas of the brain. Kalat (1998) offers the idea that drugs intended to control anxiety alter activity at amygdale synapses. “One of the amygdala’s main excitatory neuromodulators is CCK (cholecystokinin), which increases anxiety, and the main inhibitory transmitter is GABA, which inhibits anxiety.”
Without physiological research into the how and why of brain function, people with disorders such as OCD would not be able to function “normally” within society. However this type of research and study is not limited just too diagnosing disorders in those with suspected behavioural problems but also allows insight into society as a whole and its interaction socially, emotionally and habitually. New and innovative studies through physiological research have shown that cognitive behavioural therapy can change activity in certain areas of the brain. The discovery could have important clinical implications on how talk therapies improve brain function and advance mental health.
Researchers discovered significant changes in activity in certain regions of the brain can be produced with as little as four weeks of daily therapy in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder as published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry. “The study is exciting because it tells us more about how cognitive-behavioural therapy works for OCD and shows that both robust clinical improvements and changes in brain activity occur after only four weeks of intensive treatment,” said Saxena.
Past studies using functional brain imaging studies of patients with OCD have demonstrated that elevated activity along the frontal-sub cortical circuits of the brain decreases in response to treatment with serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SRI) medications or cognitive-behavioural therapy. However, clinical improvement of OCD symptoms was expected to require up to 12 weeks of behavioural therapy or medication treatment, the standard treatments for OCD. Only a handful of studies have looked at how therapy affects brain function, and all previous studies had examined changes over several months of treatment. Continual studies into physiological psychology will enhance clinical practises and provide a platform for more effective treatment of the symptoms related to this disorder.
Saxena and colleagues at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA made two novel discoveries in their study of 10 OCD patients and 12 control subjects. “First of all, we discovered significant changes in brain activity solely as the result of four weeks of intensive cognitive-behavioural therapy,” said Saxena. “Secondly, these changes were different than those seen in past studies after a standard 12-week therapeutic approach using SRI medications or weekly behavioural therapy.” The researchers obtained positron emission tomography (PET) scans of the ten OCD patients both before and after they received four weeks of a therapy known as “exposure and response prevention,” which gradually desensitizes patients to things that provoke obsession fears or worries. However, the PET scans in this study also showed a significant increase in activity in an area of the brain called the right dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, a region involved in reappraisal and suppression of negative emotions. Increasing activity in this region corresponded to the OCD patients’ improvement in clinical symptoms after the four-week course of intensive therapy. It is possible to see the huge amount of information that physiological research has bought forth to society through just these examples alone.
Physiological psychology is the study of the physiological basis of how we think, connecting the physical operation of the brain with what we actually say and do. It is thus concerned with brain cells, brain structures and components, brain chemistry, and how all this leads to speech and action. Further research as to how growing debilitating disorders such as OCD could be eliminated or drastically reduced in severity has weight in its importance. The research however does not stop with OCD diagnosis but has relevant importance to understand how we take in information in general from our five senses.
Future studies based on OCD research could be more relevant than we think to other major issues facing society such as depression, drug addiction and mental health.
It is imperative for governing bodies to fund education and research into the study of physiological psychology for this very reason.
Kalat 1998 Biological Psychology
Molecular Psychiatry Molecular Psychiatry 14, 197-205 (February 2009) | doi:10.1038/sj.mp.400213