Brain Scans and Psychotherapy

This is your Brain on Psychotherapy

Even though many people might know next to nothing about neuroscience most people have at least an inkling that medications like Prozac, Zoloft, Abilify, etc cause some kind of biochemical change in the brain.  New brain scans, similar to the one above, offer us the ability to visually witness changes in brain activity by comparing brain scans of patients before medication and while on medication.

What you may not know, is that these same hi-tech imaging studies are also revealing evidence that suggests that the brain also undergoes similar neurological changes (i.e. improved functioning) as a result of psychotherapy.    In a recent study (y Helen Mayberg, M.D., and colleagues, who used similar scans in 17 unmedicated patients with major depression before and after they had 15 to 20 sessions of psychotherapy.  She also compared the scans with those of 13 patients who were already successfully treated with antidepressant medication alone.  What she found was that both groups saw a reduction in depression and both groups showed significant changes in brain activity on the brain scan.

These  findings are exciting, and also make intuitive sense to me.  We know that experience alters the brain.  When we learn to ride a bike, we form new neural connections in the brain which allow us to ride the bike.  These new connections also allows us to remember how to ride again in the future. Psychotherapy is an experience, except we aren’t learning how to ride a bike.  We are modifying thoughts, beliefs, and expectations.  We are identifying, practicing, and learning new ways of being in the world.  As we do this, we are changing our brains in a way that will allow us not only to feel better in the moment, but perhaps just as importantly, to “remember” how to feel better in the future.

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