Why Hoarders Can’t Let Go of Their Stuff

New research shows that hoarders’ brains are very different from others’.

Hoarders’ brains function very differently when they have to make decisions about their belongings, such as newspapers. Photograph courtesy of Shutterstock.

Thanks to cable channel A&E, most of us are familiar with hoarders. The idea of living in a home filled with newspapers stacked to the ceiling or more than 20 cats and dogs is beyond most of us. Now, new research shows that hoarders’ brains exhibit distinct abnormalities when faced with making a decision about getting rid of simple possessions.

Researchers conducted a study analyzing a mix of 107 adults suffering from hoarding disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and healthy adults. Using magnetic resonance imaging, researchers took brain scans of the participants as they made real-time decisions about keeping or discarding possessions, which were as trivial as junk mail or newspapers. Specifically, patients had to decide if they should keep or shred the items.

The brain scans showed that people who suffered from hoarding disorder experienced significantly different brain activity compared with healthy subjects and those with OCD. When deciding about keeping or discarding items that did not belong to them, the hoarders showed low activity in a brain region that is stimulus dependent. However, when asked about their own belongings, the hoarders’ brains showed “excessive” neural signals compared with the other two groups.

In addition, the hoarders ended up choosing to discard fewer of their own items (29) than the OCD patients (37) and the healthy controls (40).

Researchers said the differences in the hoarders’ brains were highly correlated with hoarding severity. They also stated that the abnormality findings show hoarders have problems regulating their emotional responses during decision making. Hoarders also reported more signs of anxiety, sadness, indecisiveness, and “just not right” feelings.

Previously, hoarding disorder was often considered a subtype of OCD. Since these findings show hoarders react quite differently than OCD patients, researchers say further study of brain activity in hoarders is called for.

The full study was published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Get Our Health Newsletter

How to stay fit, eat smart, and live well in Washington.

Or, see all of our newsletters. By signing up, you agree to our terms.