How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Changes the Brain

How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Changes the Brain

Health and Fitness January 18, 2017


Millions of Americans suffer from a host of mental illness problems. For many, cognitive behavioral therapy, can be one way to help them manage things such as depression, anxiety and other issues. The Huffington Postandnbsp;is reporting that when people work on their thoughts, they actually can alter the way their brain works.

New research suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy works by changing people’s thought patters to change the activity in their brain. King’s College in London looked at the impact of cognitive behavioral therapy. They discovered that this kind of work with patients actually improved brain connections that are healthy in people who were suffering from psychosis. The research, put out in Translational Psychiatry, showed that the impact of cognitive behavioral therapy included long term help for patients. A full eight years after patients underwent cognitive behavioral therapy, they still experienced fewer symptoms and problems associated with psychosis.

The report’s lead author, Dr. Liam Mason, a psychiatrist at King’s College, said, “Over six months of therapy, we found that connections between certain key brain regions became stronger. What we are really excited about here is that these stronger connections lead to long-term improvements in people’s symptoms and overall recovery across the eight years that we followed them up.”

The techniques associated with cognitive behavioral therapy were developed in the 1970s. Today, this is a form of therapy that is routinely practiced across the globe. It works by helping patients discover their patterns of thought that are dysfunctional and replace them with more healthy thought patterns. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help patients with schizophrenia and psychosis change the way their brains process some of their paranoid ideas or perceptions.

Mason said, “(cognitive behavioral therapy) helps people learn new ways of thinking about and responding to their difficulties. What we think makes it effective is that people can take the tools they have learned and practiced in therapy, and then continue to use them long after the therapy has ended.”

The brain seems to undergo a certain amount of rewiring simply by changing the way the person thinks. Research that was done before this new study, also by Mason and his colleagues, was able to see that there were better connections in the brain between regions that process threats accurately when they had received some level of cognitive behavioral therapy than those who had not. This may have long term implications for their care and treatment. During this research, images were taken of psychotic patients’ brains before their treatment began and then at the three month point. The photos they were shown were of people expressing a wide range of emotions.

Images for these studies were taken when the patient was looking at certain photos. After receiving the cognitive behavioral therapy, there were more connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is the part of the brain where the processing of threats occurs. The prefrontal cortex is where rational thought happens. When the links between these two regions of the brain are increased, paranoia is reduced.

Mason believes that people who suffer from anxiety and depression may experience similar changes to the brain after receiving cognitive behavioral therapy. This research may change the way psychiatrists treat patients. Currently, there is what is called a “brain bias” that assumes changes to brain chemistry need to come from the use of medication. As a consequence, many psychiatrists dismiss the benefits of talk therapy for depression and anxiety.

Mason said, “Psychological therapy can lead to changes in the mechanics of the brain. This is especially important for conditions like psychosis which have traditionally been viewed as ‘brain diseases’ that require medication or even surgery. This research challenges the notion that the existence of physical brain differences in mental health disorders somehow makes psychological factors or treatments less important.”

Mental illness is a big problem for many Americans and people throughout the world. While it is true that medication is very helpful for a great number of these people, the addition of counseling to their treatment plans has also been instrumental in improving their symptoms. This new research is very promising and offers hope to people who are impacted by devastating mental illness. Cognitive behavioral therapy continues to show promise and help.