Are stressful life events causally related to the severity of obsessive-compulsive symptoms? A monozygotic twin difference study

Pablo Vidal-Ribas Belil, Argyris Stringaris, Christian Ruck, Eva Serlachius, Paul Lichtenstein, David Mataix-Cols

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36 Citations (Scopus)
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Traumatic or stressful life events have long been hypothesized to play a role in causing or precipitating obsessive-compulsive symptoms but the impact of these environmental factors has rarely been investigated using genetically informative designs. We tested whether a wide range of retrospectively-reported stressful life events (SLEs) influence the lifetime presence and severity of obsessive-compulsive symptoms (OCS) in a large Swedish population-based cohort of 22,084 twins. Multiple regression models examined whether differences in SLEs within twin pairs were significantly associated with differences in OCS. In the entire sample (i.e., both monozygotic [MZ] and dizygotic twin pairs), two SLEs factors, “abuse and family disruption” and “sexual abuse”, were significantly associated with the severity of OCS even after controlling for depressive symptoms. Other SLEs factors were either not associated with OCS (“loss”, “non-sexual assault”) or were no longer associated with OCS after controlling for depression (“illness/injury”). Within MZ pair analyses, which effectively control for genetic and shared environmental effects, showed that only the “abuse and family disruption” factor remained independently related to within-pair differences in OCS severity, even after controlling for depressive symptoms. Despite being statistically significant, the magnitude of the associations was small; “abuse and family disruption” explained approximately 3% of the variance in OCS severity. We conclude that OCS are selectively associated with certain types of stressful life events. In particular, a history of interpersonal abuse, neglect and family disruption may make a modest but significant contribution to the severity of OCS. Further replication in longitudinal cohorts is essential before causality can be firmly established.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)309-316
Number of pages8
JournalEuropean Psychiatry
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2015


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