Scientists search for cause and treatment for hoarding disorder (by Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun, September 29, 2011)
BALTIMORE — The table at Jack Samuels’ office, in Baltimore’s Fells Point, is piled two feet high with books, papers, scientific journals and grant applications.
Samuels’ wife likes to tease him that he has a hoarding problem, just like the people he studies. In reality, those stacks of paper might hold a remedy.
Samuels, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University’s Schoolof Medicine, is the go-to guy nationwide for researchers seeking to understand the biological basis of hoarding — an intense, irrational driveto collect items in vast quantities, coupled with an inability to discard even objects that are worthless or broken.
Samuels established that hoarding occurs in approximately 5 percent of the population — a far larger number than was previously suspected — and linked compulsive hoarding behavior in some patients to chromosome 14.
But as important as Samuels’ research is, he’s not content to sit inside an academic tower. Instead, he’s working with psychologist Gregory Chasson to develop a treatment for hoarding that is effective and affordable.
“People don’t realize the severity of the problems that hoarding can cause,” Samuels says. “It can be quite debilitating. When someone’s whole life is based on hoarding, family relations are strained. Every year, you read about a fire in a home that was so cluttered that firemen couldn’t get through the door. Even the neighbors of hoarders can be put at risk.”
The behavior can result in extreme situations that grip the public imagination, whether in the well-known story of the Collyer brothers, two wealthy recluses found dead in their Harlem brownstone in 1947, surrounded by 130 tons of waste that they had amassed, or in the current popularity of three reality television shows on cable television.
“Hoarders” on A&E, “Hoarding: Buried Alive” on TLC and Animal Planet’s “Confessions: Animal Hoarding” chronicle such crises as people whose homes have become structurally unsound and are in danger of collapsing, people in danger of losing custody of their children because of unsafe living conditions, and people with terminal illnesses prevented by the clutter from getting the in-home care they need.
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