Research Again Finds That Talk Therapy Can Change The Brain

In the ongoing search to find effective treatments for mental health disorders, recent years have brought some interesting findings. One of the latest is from a new study in Translational Psychiatry, which suggests that people who have cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) have measurable changes in the way certain regions of the brain are connected. Given what we already know, this isn’t so surprising in and of itself, but the results are noteworthy because the participants had more serious mental health issues than are usually the subject of CBT studies. This is the latest in a growing body of evidence suggesting that talk therapy not only has significant and lasting effects on mental health, but that these changes can actually be measured in the brain.

In the new study, participants, who had been part of earlier research by the same team, allowed themselves to be followed for another eight years. The participants all had schizophrenia, and either took their usual medication or their usual medication with the addition of CBT sessions for six months. At the beginning and the end of an initial six-month period, the participants’ brains were scanned with MRI. They also filled out questionnaires about their symptoms over the eight-year study period.
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People who had received CBT showed structural changes in their brains, from the beginning to the end of the initial six months, whereas people in the medication-only group didn’t have the same changes. In particular, there was more neural connectivity between the amygdala, which governs fear and emotion in the brain, and areas in the prefrontal cortex that govern higher-order thinking and executive function. But what the study also found was that the stronger connectivity between the regions, the better people’s recovery was over the long term (eight years)—in other words, the brain changes that came from CBT were linked to people’s symptoms being significantly improved over the longer term. And this is in people who started out with the differences in brain structure that are linked to schizophrenia, which makes the results even more striking.

“This research challenges the notion that the existence of physical brain differences in mental health disorders somehow makes psychological factors or treatments less important,” says study author Liam Mason in a press release. “Unfortunately, previous research has shown that this ‘brain bias’ can make clinicians more likely to recommend medication but not psychological therapies. This is especially important in psychosis, where only one in ten people who could benefit from psychological therapies are offered them.”

So the study is important since it suggests that people with more significant forms of mental illness can benefit from behavioral therapies like CBT. It also underlines the effectiveness of CBT in general—and it’s certainly not the first to suggest that CBT can bring about significant changes. Other research has found that this form of therapy can lead to neurological changes for people with other types of mental health issues, like depression and anxiety. A small study last year found that for people with social anxiety benefited from it, and so did their brains. People with social anxiety who took an online CBT course for nine weeks reported fewer symptoms of social anxiety, and this reduction was correlated to less volume in the amygdala, the part of the brain that was also affected in the new study.

And it’s not just CBT (although that is a very effective and well-studied method): studies have shown other forms of psychotherapy may also be at least as effective as medication in treating mental health problems and preventing relapse in the future.

Recent years have brought a lot of revelations about how changeable the brain is, even as it ages. We’ve learned that not only can it form new neurons in certain areas into adulthood, but the brain is in general much more plastic (malleable) than was once thought. And it’s encouraging that with each new study that comes out, it becomes clearer that meds are not the only effective method. Talk therapy can make a huge difference itself, to both mind and brain.

Courtesy: Flipboard
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