Drug offers hope to obsessives

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Sufferers from obsessive illnesses such as binge eating, sexual compulsions, kleptomania, shopping mania and the so-called "disease of imagined ugliness" may be helped by a medicine long available in Britain that is often prescribed for depression.

The drug fluvoxamine, sold in Britain as Faverin, regulates one of the brain's chemical messengers, serotonin, which is used in eating, sleeping and sex, and is thought to control states of consciousness and mood. Depression is linked to a deficiency of serotonin, and research suggests it may be linked to obsessive disorders.

These disorders, which also include pathological gambling and intermittent explosive behaviour, may produce an initial high followed by strong feelings of guilt and shame. This means they are often hidden and go undiagnosed, American scientists said yesterday.

Dr Eric Hollander, professor of psychiatry at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine, told a symposium in Madrid that many of these behavioural disorders had biological origins and that fluv oxamine often helped where psychotherapy had failed.

"Obsessive-compulsive disorders are extremely common, some affecting up to 10 per cent of the population, and it is a great relief for patients to know that they are not alone, and they are not going crazy. Now help is available for the first time."

He added that in pilot trials, compulsive shoppers, pathological gamblers and kleptomaniacs had responded well to fluvoxamine treatment.

Katharine Phillips, a specialist in Body Dysmorphic Disorder, the disease of imagined ugliness, said "It is easy to trivialise these disorders, but they are very serious. BDD can torment sufferers, take over their lives and lead them to suicide. It doesn't go away by just telling people they look fine."

Sufferers would spend up to eight hours a day checking and rechecking their perceived defects in front of a mirror. But in a trial, Dr Phillips found 70 per cent of her patients felt better or much better after taking fluvoxamine for four months.