ANXIETY
March 5, 2011

"Talk Therapy" Rewires the Brain

Anxious? Cognitive behavior therapy can help. The changes it brings can be seen in the brain itself.

For those who doubt whether "talk therapy" offers any real therapeutic benefit, a new study may help convince even the most stubborn skeptics. That’s because the new research successfully measured changes in participants’ brains before and after therapy began, using electroencephalogram (EEG) to study brain waves.

Participants in the study suffered from social Anxiety disorder, which is characterized by feelings of mild to extreme fear of social situations and of being judged negatively by others. The researchers compared the participants’ brain waves to those of two control groups: one control group suffered from severe social anxiety, and the other suffered from milder form. The main group of participants was given three months of group cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to tackle their social anxiety. CBT focuses on making the person aware of the thought patterns that are causing the problems and teaches him or her to adjust these patterns in healthy ways.

Laypeople tend to think that talk therapy is not ‘real,’ while they associate medications with hard science, and physiologic change. But at the end of the day, the effectiveness of any program must be mediated by the brain and the nervous system. If the brain does not change, there won’t be a change in behavior or emotion.'

The research team was interested in how much "delta-beta coupling" was going on in the participants’ brains, which is a strong marker of anxiety level. At the beginning of the study the brain waves of the main group of participants looked a lot like those in the high-anxiety control group. But after the therapy sessions, their delta-beta coupling looked more like that of the low-anxiety control group, which suggests that significant changes had occurred. What’s more, the changes in brain waves matched the participants’ self-reported level of anxiety, which fell throughout the course of the study.

One drawback of the study is that some of the participants were on anti-anxiety medications, which could have affected the results. The study will need to be repeated in participants who are not on medications so that the effects of therapy can be studied in isolation.

Still, the results are encouraging in that they likely illustrate the hard biological changes that are occurring along with therapy. Much more than just "talk", CBT is particularly affective in that it teaches the patient new ways of coping, which are reflected in the wiring of the brain itself.

As study author Vladimir Miskovic points out in the study’s press release: "Laypeople tend to think that talk therapy is not ‘real,’ while they associate medications with hard science, and physiologic change. But at the end of the day, the effectiveness of any program must be mediated by the brain and the nervous system. If the brain does not change, there won’t be a change in behavior or emotion."

Miskovic is a PhD candidate at McMaster University. The study will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science.

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