Baltimore hoarding

Jack Samuels, Ph.D, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, is at the forefront of the U.S. scientific community’s efforts to understand the causes of hoarding and to devise an affordable treatment. The piles of paper on a table in his office are part of a current grant proposal he is preparing. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / June 8, 2011)

The table in Jack Samuels' Fells Point office 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 School of Medicine, is the go-to guy nationwide for researchers seeking to understand the biological basis of hoarding — an intense, irrational drive to 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.

But even comparatively mild forms of the disorder can wreak havoc.

Liz Bumgarner and her husband had been attending meetings on Wall Street in New York just two days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

After the couple returned to their home in Vienna, Va., Bumgarner was stricken by a pervasive anxiety. What had begun the previous year as a troublesome tendency to stockpile papers rapidly grew much worse. By the time she sought help from psychologist Elspeth Bell, the lower level of her home, all 2,500 feet of it, had become so crammed with boxes it was nearly unusable.

"My husband refers to it as having to go to his office through the goat trails," says the 67-year-old human rights worker. "The upstairs is pretty livable, but we don't utilize the whole lower part of the house. The piles aren't up to the ceiling, but it isn't pretty. The downstairs is full of stuff: papers, magazines and newspapers in boxes; clothes that had sentimental value or that I don't want to get rid of because I might wear them some day. There are too many dishes, too many vases, too many tablecloths. It just got out of hand."

Currently, hoarding is categorized as a subcategory of obsessive-compulsive disorder, though Samuels thinks that it might soon be considered a related but separate illness.

Thirty percent of those with OCD also hoard. But more than half of those with a pathological collecting habit lack the intrusive thoughts and repetitive rituals that are the defining characteristics of an OCD diagnosis.

"Individuals who have obsessive-compulsive disorder and individuals who hoard are different," Samuels says. "The age of onset is later for hoarders, and the traditional treatment for OCD works poorly for people with hoarding behavior."

In addition, he says, the two diagnoses are associated with different personality traits. People who hoard are preoccupied with details and have difficulty making decisions. On the positive side, many are creative and artistic.

"They look at something that most of us would discard, like a broken bottle, and see its potential," he says.

Samuels is trying to ferret out whether an uncontrollable drive to acquire is inherited, like height or eye color. His research team is interviewing 60 hoarders and approximately 50 of their blood relatives.

He wants to know whether the relatives who don't hoard demonstrate even faint echoes of the problem. In particular, he's interested whether, like hoarders, the relatives also exhibit a malfunction of their so-called "executive functions" — the cognitive and regulatory processes carried out in the brain's anterior cingulate cortex.