Though effective in treating anxiety and depression, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is also useful in treating other emotional and physical disorders. While talk therapies are only offered as a secondary treatment to those dealing with psychotic conditions, it seems like talking to your therapist can literally rewire your brain. The study findings were published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.
A type of talking therapy, CBT helps people by changing the way they think and behave. For individuals experiencing psychotic symptoms, that are common in schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, CBT involves thinking differently about unusual experiences. It also helps patients develop strategies to reduce distress and enhance their well-being.
A new study from King’s College London and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust has revealed that CBT has the ability to strengthen specific connections in the brain. The study also points out that these strong connections are associated with long-term reduction in symptoms and recovery even eight years after receiving CBT.
According to the research, psychotic experiences can be highly distressing and can cause one to show high levels of emotional disturbances. It also agreed that while effective pharmacological and psychological interventions exist, residual symptoms and distress typically exist between episodes and there are high chances of relapses. As per the study, an important step towards improving future interventions depends on recognizing treatment factors that predict favorable recovery pathways.
The study included 22 participants and involved assessing brain’s response to images of faces expressing different emotions by monitoring them while they underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) before and after six months of receiving CBT.
The participants had undergone CBT sessions and were already taking medications; therefore, they were compared to a group receiving medication only. Post the results, researchers saw an improvement in brain connectivity in people who had undergone CBT. As the group that only took medications did not show any increase in connectivity, it suggested that CBT could be attributed to the effect on brain connections.
During the new study, monthly ratings of psychotic and affective symptoms were obtained from 15 of the 22 participants across eight years since receiving CBT along with self-reported recovery at the final follow-up.
The study participants were presented with monochrome faces depicting fear, happiness, anger, or neutral expression, and were required to indicate the gender of the person with a button press response. The images of faces were repeated in four blocks per condition with counterbalancing across 16 blocks. To assess their levels of recovery and wellbeing, the participants were also sent questionnaires at the end of this period. Upon analysis of the questionnaires received, it was observed that increase in connectivity between several brain regions was associated with long-term recovery from psychosis.
Breakthrough in the world of psychotic treatments
The study researchers are excited as this is the first time that changes in the brain related with CBT have been shown to be associated with long-term recovery in people suffering from psychotic conditions.
According to Dr. Liam Mason, study’s lead author and a clinical psychologist at King’s College London, the research challenges the notion that existence of physical brain differences in people suffering from mental health disorders makes psychological factors or treatments less effective.
Dr. Mason observed that this brain bias made clinicians more likely to prescribe medication instead of psychological therapies. He stated that the new research findings are particularly important in psychosis where only one in every 10 people is offered psychological therapies. This finding is especially important for conditions like psychosis, which have been traditionally viewed as brain diseases requiring medications or even surgery.
Road to recovery
In people dealing with psychotic symptoms, talk therapy is not given due importance since doctors usually look at medication as the first line of treatment to lessen symptoms of psychiatric disorders. However, the new study proves that CBT can literally rewire a person’s brain.
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