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Psychotherapy produces changes in the brain

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The development and improvement of neuroimaging techniques Over the last decades it has allowed us to know the structures and functions of the brain in living subjects.

Before the appearance of these techniques, the study of the brain was considerably limited in such a way that it was difficult to identify the changes that occurred in it throughout the weather.

The emergence of neuroimaging techniques

Neuroimaging has opened new lines of research, such as the identification of abnormalities in the brain function of subjects with psychiatric pathologies, determination of the brain structures involved during the performance of a specific task (such as, for example, remembering a list of names) - or a better understanding of the brain mechanisms involved in the response of flight.

A way to objectively measure the effectiveness of psychological therapy

The psychological therapy produces changes in the emotional state, in the belief system and in the behavior of a patient. Thus, it is not surprising that these changes also occur at the brain level

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. One of the lines of research that has been developed with the advent of neuroimaging is the study of brain changes that occur as a result of psychological therapy.

Before the advent of neuroimaging, the effectiveness of a psychological therapy was measured based on subjective measures such as assessment made by the patient and the therapist of the degree of improvement achieved or the comparison of the results of the pre and post tests treatment. However the neural substrate of such improvement was unknown. Hence the brain was compared to a black box whose contents could not be known. The arrival of the neuroscience and, specifically, neuroimaging, it has allowed to open this box and begin to know the functioning of the most complex organ of the body.

Changes in the mind produce changes in the brain

If now we can see the functioning and the transformations that take place in the brain, it becomes possible to objectively measure the changes that occur in the course of psychological treatment, and also those that may occur after the completion of therapy. This advance makes it possible to identify those psychological treatments that are most effective for a given disorder. The brain, being a plastic organ, is molded as a result of the experiences that has the subject and responds to psychological treatment through changes in its structure and its functions.

Barsaglini et al. (2014) carried out a review of the main investigations that have analyzed the effects of psychological therapy in patients with metal disorder. In this review they observed that the obsessive compulsive disorder is characterized by hypermetabolism of different areas of the brain, including the caudate nucleus. Many studies suggest that cognitive-behavioral treatments in patients with obsessive compulsive disorder produce a "Normalization" of the metabolic levels of the caudate nucleus and that this "normalization" is accompanied by an improvement in symptomatology.

On the other hand, patients with specific phobias (such as spider phobia) experience a reduction in the activity of the limbic system involved in the fear response as a consequence of having participated in counseling psychological therapy cognitive-behavioral. In the case of patients with schizophrenia, various studies collected in the review by Barsaglini et al. observed that psychological therapy produces a normalization of the pattern of activity in the fronto-cortical areas and, therefore, an improvement in symptoms.

Towards a design of effective psychological treatments based on neurobiological evidence

In general terms, these results indicate that psychological therapy produces changes in the functioning of the brain and that these changes are associated with an improvement in the patient's symptoms. In this sense, although to varying degrees depending on the disorder in question, both therapy pharmacological and psychological therapy allow to normalize or compensate for abnormal patterns of brain activity.

Although it is still too early to draw consistent conclusions (there are divergences in the scientific literature on what the changes are specific brain that psychological therapy produces and also about which methodology is more suitable for measuring such these changes), neuroimaging opens the door to a promising line of research: the design of effective psychological treatments based on on neurobiological evidence.

Bibliographical references:

  • Barsaglini A, Sartori G, Benetti S, Pettersson-Yeo W and Mechelli A. (2014). The effects of psychotherapy on brain function: A systematic and critical review. Progress in Neurobiology, 1–14.
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