Cognitive-behavioral therapy shrinks amygdala


Going to a “shrink” has taken on a whole new meaning.

Psychotherapy is conversational therapy with a trained expert, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist or counselor. Psychotherapy can take many forms and be geared toward an individual, peer group or family. One particularly effective form of psychotherapy is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, CBT “focuses on exploring relationships among a person’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors … to uncover unhealthy patterns of thought and how they may be causing self-destructive behaviors and beliefs.” In other words, the therapist helps the person base future projections on positive experiences rather than false or negative thoughts.

CBT has been studied extensively and found to be effective in patients with behavioral problems and mental illnesses — including anxiety, depression, substance use disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders and others. In fact, CBT has been shown to help normalize brain waves and activity. New evidence suggests that CBT may even change the brain on a structural level.

About the study

Researchers at Linköping and other Swedish universities studied 26 patients with social anxiety disorder undergoing CBT via the internet. Magnetic resonance imaging of the brain was done before and after nine weeks of CBT. The volume and activity of the amygdala, which processes fear and emotion, decreased significantly after treatment. In addition, the more their social anxiety improved, the smaller the amygdala became.

“We’ve shown that the patients can improve in nine weeks — and that this leads to structural differences in their brains,” said lead author Kristoffer N.T. Månsson in a press release. The researchers plan to study more patients and determine at which point during therapy the changes occur.

CBT in the form of online and mobile apps is an emerging trend that provides mental health services for people who might otherwise not be able to receive these services. Preliminary evidence shows that media-based therapy may be helpful, but it has not been studied as much or across the diverse diagnostic groups that traditional CBT has. More research will help determine the best treatments and how to deliver them in the most efficient manner possible.

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About the author

Dana Connolly, Ph.D., translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. 

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