Compulsive Hoarding Relating to Genetics

There have been a lot of questions around the genetics behind compulsive hoarding. Is it inherited, better yet, can it be? To better understand the answer to this question, it is necessary to dive deeper into compulsive hoarding and what it entails.

An overview of hoarding

To begin, it is important to understand what compulsive hoarding actually is. Individuals that collect and acquire clutter are not necessarily considered compulsive hoarders. Although they may suffer from similar mentalities, they have to meet another standard in order to be labeled a compulsive hoarder. Instead, the individual must acquire, hoard or collect items and clutter to an extent that it disrupts their daily life.

Hoarding can ruin relationships, both personal and professional, which can be problematic for individuals trying to maintain a marriage or job. Additionally, the individual suffering may cut themselves off from society subconsciously. In severe instances of compulsive hoarding, there may be the potential of endangering lives, whether it be one own’s life, their significant other, family members or roommates.

Compulsive hoarding falls under the tree of obsessive-compulsive disorder, also known as OCD. About 30 to 40 percent of those affected by OCD also suffer from compulsive hoarding, which is quite a high rate. While many associate hoarding with bad planning, a lack of organization or being messy, it is actually quite different. Unlike disorganization, messiness or poor planning skills, compulsive hoarding is believed to be a pathological brain disorder that inhibits normal function. Doctors believe that hoarding is not its own thing, but rather a subset of another disorder, meaning a symptom. Some of the most common associated brain disorders include impulse control, attention-deficit hyperactivity, anxiety and depression.

Outside of medical disorders, there are other significant life events that can trigger hoarding behaviors. Death, relationship problems, job loss or moving to a new place often put a lot of pressure, stress or anxiety on individuals, which can all lead to excessive hoarding practices. In some scenarios, these life events can lead to grief or long-term depression, which can then result in the development of compulsive hoarding. While these situations can leave individuals feeling hopeless, it is important to know that there are plenty of resources available for support, one being Hoarding Help Central.

The role of genetics

Many individuals that suffer from compulsive hoarding have been exposed to it at one point or another, making it relevant to them. Oftentimes, they are exposed by someone in the family, whether it be parents, grandparents or distant relatives. The term “hoarding parents” was brought on by compulsive hoarders who have parents that also hoard. While it does tend to run in families, there is not currently any proven evidence that shows whether or not DNA is involved.

Randy O. Frost, Ph.D. is a psychologist at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. His research has shown that compulsive hoarding might be genetic, but it also might be as simple as a modeling effect. A lot of children take after their parents, in one way or another, whether it be with hoarding or simpler, positive things, such as making lasagna a certain way.

A team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine conducted a study that suggests a small region on chromosome 14 could be linked with compulsive hoarding in families that also suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder. The study was conducted in March of 2007 and it took samples from 999 patients in 219 different families, all of which suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder. The researchers analyzed each sample and determined that families who had over two relatives that hoarded showed the special chromosome 14 pattern. The other families’ obsessive-compulsive disorder was related to chromosome 3, which had no bearing on the hoarding compulsion.

The study from Johns Hopkins was one of three that identified genetic markers specifically associated with compulsive hoarding. Sanjaya Saxena, M.D. is the director of the University of California, San Diego, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders Program, which is part of the Department of Psychiatry Outpatient Speciality Clinic. She wrote to the editor of the American Journal of Psychiatry to discuss that other studies have confirmed that compulsive hoarding is familia. She also added that the research done at Johns Hopkins supports the evidence that shows that compulsive hoarding is an etiological discrete phenotype.

While there have not been a ton of studies done on compulsive hoarding relating to genetics, the ones that have been conducted are conclusive with the idea that hoarding is familial. Regardless if it is passed down genetically or off of example, it is no coincidence that individuals who hoard also have hoarding parents.

Brain activity

Furthermore, evidence based on brain imaging studies suggests that compulsive hoarding ignites a special and very specific type of brain activity, one of which is very distinct. Individuals that do have hoarding tendencies have a completely different pattern of glucose metabolism in their brain, as compared to individuals who do not suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder or hoarding. Additionally, these patterns are much different in hoarders than they are in completely healthy individuals with no signs of OCD or hoarding.

To provide more context, it is necessary to understand some of the functions of the brain. Individuals that have hoarding OCD have a lower amount of activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex part of their brain than healthy individuals do. This part of the brain is responsible for subserving cognition and motor control. In simple words, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex is involved in emotion processing and behavior regulation, both of which were found to be compromised in individuals who hoard. Additionally, a study found that compulsive hoarders exhibited a pattern of cognitive deficits, including difficulty to make decisions and an impairment when going through the decision-making process. Thus supporting the idea that compulsive hoarding is linked to other disorders, whether it be mental or behavioral.

Sanjaya Saxena follows up in her letter to the editor of the American Journal of Psychiatry to say that compulsive hoarding is its own discrete entity. She also states that the characteristic profile is distinct and does not seem to directly or strongly correlate with obsessive-compulsive disorder symptoms, susceptibility genes or other neurobiological abnormalities that may not be found in non-hoarding individuals.

Further studies

Tourette’s Syndrome is another disorder that correlates with obsessive-compulsive disorder and hoarding. Because of this common feature, a further study was done by a doctor at Yale University School of Medicine and colleagues. Heping Zhang, Ph.D. looked at the DNA of siblings with Tourette’s Syndrome. The findings consisted of significant links to chromosome 4, 5 and 17, but not 14, which, as stated previously, was the link for familial hoarding.

Randy Frost, a member of Smith College believes that chromosome 14 does have an association with hoarding, which could be a significant breakthrough in understanding the mechanism behind the disorder. Regardless of the current studies, Frost also emphasizes on the reality of things. All of the current studies are preliminary with extremely small samples and minimal research. With that being said, it is hard to rely on that evidence as it does not completely represent the full range of hoarding within the population.

Besides the fact that there is not enough marginal evidence to go off of, there is also the aspect of heritable traits. It is not currently understood what traits are heritable versus the ones that are not. Frost suggests that maybe instead of hoarding itself being passed down, it could just be the symptoms, such as poor decision-making skills or an attention-deficit.

In order to better understand compulsive hoarding and the genetics behind it, there have to be more studies conducted, which is a lot easier said than done. Individuals that suffer from hoarding OCD are not always keen on being the center of attention, meaning a study could bring their problem to light, which can be embarrassing and difficult to come to terms with.

Regardless, there is a need for more studies, including the entire population of hoarders, not just individuals who have obsessive-compulsive disorder. Currently, a project with experts at John Hopkins University is underway, led by Randy Frost. The test will aim to answer the question of hoarding relating to genetics in a more conclusive way, with further research and strong evidence.

Dealing with compulsive hoarding in a familial setting

Randy Frost, along with other researchers advise people with hoarding tendencies to be open, honest and direct about the issue, especially when it is a familial issue, meaning, it runs in the family. Individuals that can identify and recognize their problem are closer to the road of recovery than they realize. They are much more able to control their hoarding tendencies than individuals that are not open about it.

And, while it can be difficult to come to terms with hoarding, individuals that do, are putting a stop in the potential risk that it would get passed down to their offspring, whether it be genetically or by example. Although there is not a conclusive answer to the question of hoarding relating to genetics, it does go without saying that children lead by example.

To conclude, David F. Tolin, Ph.D. is the founder of the Anxiety Disorders Center at The Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut. The facility focuses on anxiety disorders, which does include compulsive hoarding and obsessive-compulsive disorder. He states that “For a condition like compulsive hoarding to come about, you probably have to have a person who has a certain set of inherited characteristics. But biology is not destiny. Just because somebody has a genetic predisposition to develop a certain behavioral condition, that doesn’t mean they are doomed.” While these words may not solve a compulsive hoarding problem, they can be helpful and inspiring for individuals who feel that there is no hope for their condition.

* Whether hoarding has become compulsive or it is just starting, getting help is the best place to start. There are many hoarding cleanup services available to individuals and their families, regardless of how large or small the problem might be. Here at Hoarding Help Central, you can find more resources on compulsive hoarding, as well as how to deal with it and support individuals suffering from it.