Despite numerous TV shows chronicling trash-filled kitchens and messy bedrooms, the science of "hoarding" has been long misunderstood. But a new study suggests that hoarding may be a clinical condition.
Hoarders have an extremely difficult time parting with personal belongings, organizing their lives, and often live in an extremely cluttered space.
Many scientists have classified hoarders as a subset of those with obsessive compulsive disorder. But researcher David Tolin of The Institute of Living, a mental health center, says hoarders' brain activity is different than the activity of someone with OCD or people without either disorder.
"When we talked to people who hoard in a clinical setting, the things they were describing didn't sound like obsession or compulsion," he says. "For a long time, we've used the same kinds of treatments as we use with OCD, and the results were very disappointing."
When asked to decide whether to throw away or keep paper items such as junk mail or newspapers, activity levels in hoarders' anterior cingulated cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision making, became "excessive," according to the study. Essentially, they become unable to make decisions, Tolin says.
"People who hoard frequently become stuck in the decision-making process, which makes them less able or less willing to decide whether to keep or discard things," he says. People with OCD didn't show the same level of increased activity.
The Mayo Clinic and many other health groups don't officially recognize hoarding as a disorder, but Tolin's findings could lead to a clinical definition of the disease. It could also be part of the basic research that may allow drug companies to develop medications for hoarding.
So far, counseling known as cognitive behavioral therapy, which is used to treat depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, is the only treatment that has been clinically proven to help hoarders cope with their symptoms. But, going forward, he hopes that a two-pronged attack of medication and therapy can treat the underlying causes of hoarding.
Tolin says popular television shows about hoarding have put the disease in the public spotlight, even if they are mainly for entertainment purposes.
"It's a good idea to make people aware that any illness exists," he says. "But any show that puts illness on the air has to be careful to do it with some sensitivity. Hopefully it's opening some eyes."
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com.