How Talk Therapy Can Change Our Brains for the Better

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Talk therapy is often considered the soft option when it comes to mental health treatment. Yet millions of patients and numerous studies testify to its long-term effectiveness, and now researchers say one type of talk therapy can produce visible changes in patients’ brains. They published their research in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

One of the best-known and most successful techniques is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT. People in CBT learn skills that allow them to challenge and disrupt unpleasant and negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. CBT is especially useful for people experiencing psychosis, a state of mind in which it becomes hard—if not impossible—to tell what’s real and what’s not. CBT for psychosis (CBTp) gives patients the tools to reframe their troubling thoughts and help calm themselves down.

For the study, researchers recruited 22 people who were already on medication to help with the symptoms of psychosis. The participants filled out questionnaires about their health and state of mind, then underwent brain scans.

The researchers divided the participants into two groups: Fifteen people continued taking their medication and did a six-month stint of CBT, while the other seven (the control group) simply continued taking their medication. The researchers tracked the participants’ health over the next eight years. At the end, the subjects filled out another questionnaire and underwent another brain scan.

Seven-and-a-half years after their treatment ended, the people in the CBT group showed clear signs of improvement, in both their brain scans and their health histories. Their brains showed stronger connections between several regions, including the amygdala, which helps identify threats, and the frontal lobes, which are vital for thinking and reasoning. People in the CBT group also reported feeling better about their mental health than people in the medication-only group, and felt they’d made more progress toward recovery.

Liam Mason of Kings College London was lead author on the paper. He says his findings dispel the notion that talk therapy is less important because it doesn’t physically change the brain. “This 'brain bias' can make clinicians more likely to recommend medication but not psychological therapies,” he said in a statement. “This is especially important in psychosis, where only one in ten people who could benefit from psychological therapies are offered them."