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Does OCD reduce memory?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a common mental health condition characterized by obsessive, anxiety-inducing thoughts and compulsions or rituals aimed at reducing the associated anxiety. OCD affects approximately 1-2% of adults and can significantly impair quality of life.

A key question in OCD research is whether the condition also impairs cognitive functions like memory. Understanding the cognitive impacts of OCD is important for improving treatments and helping patients manage their symptoms.

What is OCD?

OCD is classified as an anxiety disorder by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition (DSM-5).

The primary symptoms of OCD fall into two main categories:

  • Obsessions – intrusive, unwanted thoughts or urges that cause distress or anxiety. Common obsessions include fears of contamination, worries about accidents or injuries, taboo thoughts about sex or religion, and concerns about symmetry or order.
  • Compulsions – repetitive behaviors or mental rituals aimed at reducing anxiety associated with the obsessions. Examples include excessive cleaning and washing, repeating actions, ordering items, and compulsive counting.

OCD obsessions and compulsions can consume significant time and get in the way of work, relationships, and daily activities. OCD symptoms usually begin gradually and vary widely in their presentation and severity across individuals. On average, OCD develops in the late teens to early adulthood.

Theories on OCD and Memory

There are several theories about how OCD could potentially impact memory abilities:

Interference from intrusive thoughts

The frequent intrusive obsessive thoughts experienced in OCD could interfere with encoding and retrieval of memories by dominating cognitive resources.

Impaired executive functioning

Executive functions like working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibition are impaired in OCD. Since executive functions are tied to memory, this could negatively impact aspects like memorization and recall.

Altered memory confidence

OCD compulsions and checking behaviors may lead to reduced confidence in memory and increased doubt. This lack of memory confidence could impair recall abilities.

Avoidance coping

Avoiding triggers is a common OCD coping strategy. This avoidance could hypothetically impair emotional memory formation for triggering events.

Memory Testing in OCD

A number of studies have tested memory abilities in people with OCD using neuropsychological tests. These tests objectively measure different aspects of memory function.

Memory is a complex cognitive domain made up of multiple interacting brain systems and processes. The main memory systems examined in OCD research include:

  • Working memory – actively holding information in mind and using it (e.g. remembering a phone number).
  • Episodic memory – memory for autobiographical events and specific experiences.
  • Semantic memory– general knowledge about the world (e.g. vocabulary).
  • Procedural memory – memory for skills and procedures (e.g. riding a bike).

Looking at findings across numerous studies can reveal if certain memory systems or processes are disproportionately affected in OCD.

Findings on Memory Function in OCD

In general, studies show minor impairments in some OCD patients across a range of memory types:

Working Memory

Many studies have found deficits in verbal and non-verbal working memory in those with OCD compared to healthy controls. For example, one meta-analysis found small-to-medium impairments in spatial working memory in OCD patients.

Episodic Memory

Some studies have observed poorer recall of word lists and stories in OCD groups, suggesting impaired episodic memory. But findings are mixed, with other studies finding no differences.

Semantic Memory

Results are inconsistent for semantic memory, with some studies showing impaired naming/vocabulary abilities in OCD patients while others showed no differences compared to controls.

Procedural Memory

No clear evidence for deficits in procedural memory has been found in OCD research.

Specific OCD Symptoms and Memory

When examining overall OCD populations, effects on memory are relatively small. However, some studies suggest certain OCD symptoms are more associated with memory deficits:

  • Obsessive doubting – Those with doubting/checking compulsions show lower memory confidence and metamemory accuracy.
  • Hoarding – Hoarding OCD patients exhibit impaired recall compared to non-hoarding patients.
  • Low cognitive confidence – OCD patients with lower cognitive confidence perform worse at verbal recall and recognition tasks.

Additionally, OCD patients with lower IQs and impaired attention tend to score lower at memory testing.

Is Memory Impairment Due to OCD Itself?

There are other factors besides OCD symptoms themselves that could contribute to memory deficits:


Depression is common alongside OCD. Depression is linked to decreased attention, executive function, and memory encoding, so comorbid depression could account for some impairment seen in OCD.


Many OCD patients take selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) medications which affect memory-associated brain areas. One study linked SSRIs to episodic memory deficits in OCD patients.

Small Sample Sizes

Most neuropsychological studies in OCD have fairly small sample sizes. Larger studies are needed to provide more definitive evidence regarding memory abilities.

Cognitive Impairment Summary Table

Memory System Overall Findings
Working Memory Medium impairment
Episodic Memory Mild impairment in some OCD patients
Semantic Memory No consistent evidence of impairment
Procedural Memory No evidence of impairment


Research suggests OCD can mildly impair some aspects of memory function, particularly working memory and episodic memory encoding and retrieval.

However, findings are mixed overall. More research controlling for depression and medication effects is needed to clarify if impairments are due to OCD itself versus other factors.

Memory deficits likely depend on OCD symptom profile. Individuals with hoarding, high doubting/checking, and low cognitive confidence seem most affected.

In most cases, memory impairments in OCD appear relatively subtle compared to conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. Effective therapeutic interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may help improve OCD patients’ memory abilities over time.

With appropriate treatment and coping strategies, most individuals with OCD can achieve normal learning and memory despite the intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors characterizing their disorder.