Talk Therapy Changes the Brain

Talk Therapy Changes the Brain

Cognitive behavior therapy literally changes connections in the brain.


Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a specific type of “talking therapy.” According to the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists, it “is based on the idea that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors, not external things, like people, situations, and events. The benefit of this fact is that we can change the way we think to feel/act better even if the situation does not change.” That’s rather exciting, isn’t it? Even if life is handing you a steaming pile of yuck, there are still techniques and tools to literally retrain your brain so that you can feel better.

A new study, published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, further added to the growing body of research on CBT. While CBT can be used to treat a variety of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and insomnia, this particular study looked at people experiencing psychotic symptoms, such as those associated with schizophrenia. For these patients, CBT can help them reframe their unusual perceptions, such as a disturbing belief that someone is out to get them. CBT also can also help them develop strategies to reduce the sensation of distress and improve overall wellbeing.

Researchers at King’s College London and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust in England used fMRI, which looks at blood flow to regions of the brain, to study different regions in participants’ brains. Originally, patients were split into groups; one of which received medication and CBT, and one of which received medication only to treat their psychosis.

The patients who had undergone CBT showed a strengthened connection between the regions of the brain key regions of the brain involved in processing social threat accurately, while the patients who only had medication did not.

Eight years later, the patients’ brains were scanned again, and the ones who had had CBT, versus medication only, showed increased connection between the amygdala (the brain’s threat center) and the frontal lobes (thinking and reasoning) —this is associated with long-term recovery from psychosis.

“This research challenges the notion that the existence of physical brain differences in mental health disorders somehow makes psychological factors or treatments less important,” wrote the study’s lead author, psychologist Dr. Liam Mason. “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 10 people who could benefit from psychological therapies are offered them.”

This study may lead to better, more effective ways to treat psychosis, and shows just how powerful CBT can be.

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.

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