IOL Hoarding Study Examines the Brain Function of People Who Just Can’t Get Enough— Stuff

July 11, 2016

We’ve seen the images in newspapers and on TV: garages stuffed to the rafters, homes so cluttered that it’s impossible to walk from room to room.

Many have probably heard the term hoarding as well. It’s been a hot topic for talk show hosts such as Oprah Winfrey and even the subject of reality television.

But hoarding is more than a curiosity or simple human foible. Hoarding is a type of mental illness, classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5) as a type of obsessive compulsive disorder. Frequently, people who hoard also suffer from other mental or physical conditions including depression, anxiety or chronic illnesses. 

And it’s surprisingly common. According to Dr. David Tolin, director of Anxiety Disorders Center at the Institute of Living at Hartford Hospital, hoarding disorder affects 3 to 5 percent of the population.

The primary symptom is the inability to discard or part with possessions. The act of discarding things can cause emotional distress so clutter builds up. Eventually, the home, yard, car or office space may be so packed that it becomes a health or safety hazard.

Tolin recalls a patient who accumulated tools, building materials and light bulbs from tag sales and home improvement stores because he wanted to be a handy man. But he never fixed anything. He hadn’t even changed a light bulb. But his tools filled the house, making many areas uninhabitable.

The most effective treatment for hoarding disorder appears to be counseling. Now, Tolin and his colleagues at the IOL are leading a clinical study to try to determine what kind of therapy works best and how counseling can re-direct pathways in the brain, allowing patients to make healthier decisions. Study participants engage in a 16-week course of cognitive behavioral therapy that encourages them to set goals, make decisions more effectively and teaches them ways to manage some the emotional upset associated with clearing up the clutter. Brain scans taken throughout the treatment will help researchers attempt to identify areas of the brain that might be affected by the disorder and, potentially the treatment. Tolin hopes the study will help create more targeted and effective approaches to treating those with hoarding disorder.

More information about hoarding disorder, the study and treatment options will be at several free community education events in and around Hartford this July. For more information, visit or call 860.545.7039

NBC 30 interview with Dr. Tolin