Does psychotherapy induce changes in the brain?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

TORONTO - Medication and psychotherapy both help people with an anxiety disorder. But research on the effects of psychotherapy on nerve cells has lagged far behind that on medication-induced changes in the brain.

Social anxiety boils down to overwhelming fears of interacting with others and expectations of being harshly judged.

“We wanted to track the brain changes while people were going through psychotherapy,” says McMaster University doctoral candidate and study co-author Vladimir Miskovic.

The team, led by David Moscovitch of the University of Waterloo, collaborated with McMaster’s Louis Schmidt and Diane Santesso. Randi McCabe-used electroencephalograms or EEGs, which measure brain electrical interactions in real time, were put to use.

They focused on the amount of “delta-beta coupling”, which elevates with rising anxiety. They recruited a group of adults with social anxiety disorder, according to a McMaster’s statement.

The patients participated in group cognitive behaviour therapy, a structured method that helps people identify and challenge the thinking patterns that perpetuate their painful and self-destructive behaviours.

Two control groups - students who tested extremely high or low for symptoms of social anxiety - underwent no psychotherapy.

The patients were given four EEGs — two before treatment, one halfway through, and one two weeks after the final session.

When the patients’ pre and post-therapy EEGs were compared with the control groups’, the results were revealing.

Before therapy, the clinical group’s delta-beta correlations were similar to those of the high-anxiety control group and far higher than the low-anxiety groups.

Midway through, improvements in the patients’ brains paralleled clinicians’ and patients’ own reports of easing symptoms. And at the end, the patients’ tests resembled those of the low-anxiety control group.

Filed under: Medicine, Mental Health, World

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